My ASCO Fiasco


Two point seven million square feet! According to the web site for McCormick Place here in Chicago, that's the size of "the nation's largest convention center."

So, you might think that with all that space, a single CNBC crew consisting of a photographer, a producer and moi wouldn't take up much room--or draw too much attention--especially in the middle of a conference that draws as many people as ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology). But you'd be wrong. And so was I.

This year, for the first time ever, ASCO agreed to let CNBC broadcast live from inside McCormick Place. It took years of reasoning, pleading, nagging and complaining to get inside. But finally, ASCO consented. In the past, the scientific organization has tried to keep more than an arm's distance from the financial media.

This was a big deal for us. In the five previous years that I've been coming to ASCO, I've had to do my live reports from outside whatever city's convention center the meeting was being held in. Most of the venues, like McCormick Place, are enormous. So, it's always a schlep for us, the executives we interview and their people. And, of course, we're at the mercy of Mother Nature. Last year we had to deal with rain and wind. After a 15-hour-day working in those elements my producer, Ruth, had to throw away her clothes. They were ruined.

So, it was a big relief to us to learn we were gonna be allowed to go live from inside this year. Until I blew it.

Here's how. On Sunday afternoon, in a huge, packed hall in the convention center the highly anticipated, detailed test results of Erbitux (ImClone Systems ImClone Systems and Bristol-Myers SquibbBristol-Myers Squibb ) were being presented. I'm not a doctor. I'm a reporter. So, at events like this I like to interview real, work-a-day doctors after data like these are revealed (see related post link for video clips). There's always a place on CNBC for analyst and "rock star", academic physician interviews, but I think regular practicing docs provide viewers with real-world, clinical perspective--information that can help them, perhaps, with investment decisions.

In recent months, for example, I did similar sets of interviews immediately following the presentations on the Avandia (GlaxoSmithKline GlaxoSmithKline ) and Vytorin (Merck (Merck and Schering-PloughSchering-Plough ) controversies. Those took place at the conferences of the American College of Cardiology and the American Diabetes Association which, by the way, don't have a problem with CNBC being inside.

That's what I was attempting to do Sunday afternoon. Immediately after the Erbitux session ended I positioned myself, Ruth and our photographer just inside the main entrance to McCormick. Because most of the attendees were leaving for the day all at once, the traffic noise outside--buses rolling by, taxis pulling up, honking horns, doors slamming, the taxi-stand attendant blowing his whistle--was too much, so I suggested we duck inside to try to knock out the quick interviews. An oncologist from Chicago agreed to talk with me. The interview took all of two minutes. But that's where I blew it.

Security descended. I was scolded and told to go outside. I complied with no pushback. But a couple hours later Ruth got a call from an ASCO press office representative telling her we'd been disinvited to the ASCO ball. I had broken the rules. We would no longer be allowed to broadcast from inside the building on Monday.

I should also point out that print reporters are permitted to roam the convention center halls with their tape recorders and/or notepads and pens and talk to doctors pretty much anywhere they want. They don't have to ask the physicians to take a hike to the nearest "interview room" or to step outside. But we have always had to do so at ASCO. The only difference between me and my print colleagues are the tools we use. They use pens, paper, tape or digital recorders. I use a TV camera and a microphone.

It boggles the mind why TV business-news reporters encounter so much resistance while trying to cover an event as important as this conference. I don't know if ASCO will ever see reason on this matter. But you can be sure my crew and I will still be at ASCO bringing you the news. Though depending on the weather (and next year's ASCO is in hot, sticky Orlando), we may be all wet.

Questions? Comments?