CJAC: Civil Justice Association of California

Oct 17, 2005

California Reporter, Not Erin Brockovich, Should Receive Harvard Health Award

CJAC Urges School of Public Health to Make a Switch

Below is a letter from John H. Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California (CJAC), urging the Harvard School of Public Health to reconsider its planned award of the prestigious Julius B. Richmond award to Erin Brockovich-Ellis.

The Civil Justice Association recommends replacing Ms. Brockovich-Ellis with California newswoman Norma Zager who was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club for her work in unveiling deceptive public health data, work that was chronicled by the Columbia Law Review in an article: “Muckraker 90210: A Most Unlikely Reporter Nails Erin Brockovich.”

October 17, 2005

Barry R. Bloom, Ph.D.
Dean of the Faculty

Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health

Harvard School of Public Health

Kresge Building, Room 1005

677 Huntington Avenue

Boston, MA 02115

Dear Dr. Bloom,

I write to bring to your attention important information related to your planned award of the prestigious Julius B. Richmond award to Erin Brockovich-Ellis and to strongly recommend you replace Ms. Brockovich-Ellis with another Californian, newspaperwoman Norma Zager.

Ms. Zager was the 2003 recipient of the Los Angeles Press Club’s prestigious Southern California Journalist of the Year award and was recognized in Columbia Journalism Review in a March 2004 article “Muckraker 90210: A Most Unlikely Reporter Nails Erin Brockovich.”

While editor of the Beverly Hills Courier, Norma Zager made an extremely noteworthy contribution to environmental health through her coverage of an Erin Brockovich-Edward Masry lawsuit based on claims that oil wells on the Beverly Hills High School campus were causing cancer.

As the Los Angeles Press Club commented in announcing Zager’s win: “A classic turn-around of a story. Tiny paper takes on big law firm and legendary environmental crusader and turns out to be right…”

Columbia Journalism Review writer Eric Umansky tells how Zager looked behind cancer cluster claims, decided to “learn everything she could about oil wells and benzene,” and “helped uncover what appears to be a Hollywood heroine’s campaign of deception.” He reported that after Zager’s relentless pursuit, “Independent and government experts looked into the case. Toxicologists, epidemiologists, and oil regulators all dismissed Brockovich’s and Masry’s assertions as quackery….”

It is important to note that rather than voluntarily submit their work to anything that might be likened to medical peer review, Brockovich and Masry refused (as pointed out in the Review article) to reveal the documentation behind their benzene level and cancer rate claims until ordered to do so by a judge.

Norma Zager’s commitment to truth is a reminder to us all of the importance of credible environmental health information. When questionable medical-scientific evidence is generated in the name of public interest, damage is done to the reputations and the future credibility of legitimate health researchers and institutions. False information used to generate money for legal enterprises is distasteful in itself. But even more harmful is “junk science” that unleashes groundless fear among ordinary people and especially vulnerable populations thirsting for information to help them protect their health and safety and that of their children.

By uncovering the truth, Zager demonstrated the importance of quality and credible environmental health information, an accomplishment richly deserving of recognition by the Harvard School of Public Health at its annual Leadership Council on October 18 at Harvard Medical School.

Thank you for your consideration of this request.


John H. Sullivan

Civil Justice Association of California


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