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Sanjay Gupta, Obama's Politically Incorrect Surgeon General

5:30 PM, Jan 6, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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So, America's most telegenic, Indian-American neurosurgeon/family man/anchorman will be America's next surgeon general. None of C. Everett Koop's stern demeanor and exceptional facial hair or Joycelyn Elders' tendency toward the most awkward national public health conversations ever. Not for Obama.

It's a smart political choice--one that puts an undeniably smart, young, minority figure in a place of prominence who reflects Obama's own perceived vibrancy.

It's also an encouraging choice when it comes to the politics of public health. In my experience, watching and reading Gupta, he's a fair man who tells the truth about health issues, even when the truth runs counter to liberal public-health crusades. Such honesty in a health reporter is fairly remarkable, and is what makes Gupta worth watching.

He's perhaps most famous for a dust-up with Michael Moore over his movie, "Sicko." CNN initially aired a report by Gupta, which refuted many of the charges made about health care by Moore in "Sicko." Moore accused Gupta and CNN of being in bed with pharmaceutical companies, because the imagination of this filmmaker only allows for a very small, predictable cast of villains. Gupta ended up correcting and apologizing for one incorrect figure in his reporting--he had misstated Moore's figure on per-capita health spending in Cuba, saying $25 instead of $251. Gupta later faced off with Moore in a debate on "Larry King Live," and CNN stood behind Gupta with a point-by-point rebuttal of Moore's complaint.

Paul Krugman has taken to his NYT blog to swiftly condemn the Gupta pick, based on the doctor's performance in this incident, saying the pick reflects "lack of accountability that always seems to be the rule when you get things wrong in a socially acceptable way."

In fact, Gupta took responsibility for his mistake and offered Moore ample opportunity to refute him in a face-to-face discussion. Most of the bad press Gupta suffered over the incident stemmed not from his honest mistake, but from the Left's displeasure over his attacking the idea of socialized medicine in a socially unacceptable way. Moore's real-life theatrics, just like his celluloid ones, were meant to stifle debate, not encourage it. Gupta didn't play along.

Though the most visible, it's not the first time Gupta has spoken, err, inconvenient truths about health issues.

In a February column, he offered far more than the simplistic, blanket condemnation of steroids and tales or "'roid rage" usually offered by health writers. Instead, he examined its real benefits and downsides, and legitimate uses outside of the sports world:

So it makes you wonder: If steroids are such a problem, why do athletes continue to take them? Why are they are a problem even among high school athletes? Why are some entertainers said to be using them?

It's because, whatever you think, anabolic steroids work.

Barry Tyson uses steroids. But he's someone you won't see in the headlines. His usage is legit. Tyson takes steroids to help fight off infections from HIV.

How quickly did he notice a change? "I mean, did you, take this stuff at night and then in the morning say, 'Wow, something's already different'?" Gupta asked.

"Well, I mean, within a couple a days I noticed a change," Tyson said. "I noticed a change in my energy level. I noticed a change in my appetite. I noticed a change in how much I could push at the gym."

And how crucial were steroids in his recovery?

"It was very important especially because it's putting on that muscle that helps fight infection," Tyson said.

In his popular special series, "Chasing Life," he treated with sensitivity the desires of older Americans to use drugs like Human Growth Hormone to improve their quality of life as their natural levels drop. Many health reporters would have opted for knee-jerk condemnation without examining the pros and cons of such controversial self-medication.