The LA Times Owner: Reckoning With The Paper’s Racist Past

Read Transcript EXPAND

BIANNA GOLODRYGA: Well, it’s hard to know where to begin with our next guest, as his resume is so packed to the gills, it’s almost tough to wrap your head

around. Born in South Africa to Chinese parents, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong studied medicine, then went to the United States where he became a

transplant surgeon and researcher for NASA. That wasn’t enough. He then invented the cancer drug, Abraxane, which put him on the path to becoming a


In 2018, he bought the “Los Angeles Times,” but he’s still very much in the biotech world, working of develop a new form of COVID vaccine. Here he is

discussing it all with Walter Isaacson.


WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Bianna. And, Dr. Soon-Shiong, welcome to the show.


ISAACSON: You bought the “Los Angeles Times,” a storied newspaper, and as an old journalist, I have a question, which is, why would a surgeon with no

media background, who becomes an immigrant to the United States want to own a newspaper?

SOON-SHIONG: Well, I think it’s all about my upbringing, right? So, I was born in South Africa under apartheid, and the only thing that really kept

me alive and inspired and educated was a newspaper. So, the “Evening Post” and the “Herald,” I would be there every day, I would be at the printing

press as the paper came off. So, it was in my blood, so to speak.

And when the opportunity came for the “L.A. Times,” which I was very, very fearful of it being lost and it speaks to power. It’s important for

democracy. It’s important for free speech. And frankly, it’s an educational tool. So to me, it was a great opportunity for me to take this storied

newspaper and try to survive it.

ISAACSON: When you were reading newspapers in South Africa, during a period of apartheid, tell me the importance of that.

SOON-SHIONG: Well, you know, think about all of the hardships and the atrocities that some of the people would go through, and people who had the

bravery and the courage to report that. Some of them were locked up. Some of them were put in house arrest. But that inspired us to — or inspired

me, at least, to be able to go to a single source of truth, at least.

And so, again, I think it’s important that a newspaper be a place where they could be some truth and integrity.

ISAACSON: So you came over to Los Angeles, the medical training, you become a surgeon. How did your career take off in order to allow you to do

things like buying newspapers?

SOON-SHIONG: By accident, honestly. Because, really, the pursuit of my — the science and the pursuit of the dream. So, you know, I came, as I said,

from South Africa to Canada and from Canada, got recruited to UCLA. And Los Angeles was this cauldron of amazing innovation. Caltech, UCLA, USC, major

schools. And as an assistant professor of surgery, I also got involved in NASA. So, it’s not very well-known that I was also part of the space

shuttle program.

So, my lens was from a surgeon that was doing pancreas transplant, and then other part of my other lens is there’s a surgeon doing what we call

whipple, so pancreatic cancer. So, I had a sort of unique view of the immune system of the human being. And from that, that forged everything

I’ve done and everything I’m still doing with regard to trying to activate immune system.

ISAACSON: And so, you became a biotech entrepreneur. How did you end up making so much money at that?

SOON-SHIONG: It wasn’t an entrepreneur’s perspective. It was really a scientific’s clinician. So, I looked upon this as a clinician trying to

establish a global practice of medicine. So, my first vision was to actually create this nanoparticle of albumin for cancer. And, again, I was

going against dogma. Everybody, and still to this day, was given high-dose chemotherapy to kill the tumor. And I recognized that, in fact, in so

doing, we actually wipe out the immune system.

So. I wanted to create a nanoparticle, and it turns out that albumin is ubiquitous. All tumors, regardless, you lose weight. So, I surmised that

maybe the whole thing is the tumor is eating albumin. So, why wouldn’t we create a nanoparticle of albumin and allow the tumor to feed on that? And

remember, those were the days when people were talking about starving the tumor. I said, let’s feed the tumor, but feed it rat poison.

So, that was the pursuit again of a strategy that was against dogma of a nanoparticle technology that didn’t exist. And if you may know, President

Clinton at that time just created the nanotechnology institute within the federal government.

So, the pursuit of that and when the hypothesis is correct and got approved for breast cancer, lung cancer vaccine (ph) did, Celgene went to that

molecule and I was happy to sell it because I wanted to go on to the next adventure. And that’s where the money came from.

ISAACSON: And how are you trying to create a new form of COVID vaccine, which I know you’re trying to bring into South Africa, which is facing new

strains of coronavirus?

SOON-SHIONG: Yes, you know, from the outset, when COVID hit in 2020 and 2019, we recognized that this is acting like cancer. This virus goes into

your cells and uses the machinery to escape, it uses the cell itself. So, blocking it alone with antibodies is not sufficient. You need to find way

to kill the infected cell. And the only way to kill that infected cell is with the T cell.

So, using our experience in cancer, by March 2020, we had the first gene we produced vial that was going after the innards of the virus as opposed to

just the surface of the virus. The innards called the N protein and the surface is called S protein. And so, our approach was to generate T cells

as well as antibodies. And that’s where we are now.

ISAACSON: And so, that’s fundamentally different from the messenger RNA vaccines that have been rolled out. Do you think that you’re going to pass

the clinical trials and have this used soon in South Africa and maybe the United States?

SOON-SHIONG: Well, we’ve already in trials in South Africa and we are already in trials in the United States. And the way to think about these

different vaccines is what we call a DNA vaccine, which is these adenoviruses, and then there’s an RNA vaccine and then there’s a single-

protein vaccine, as broadly three big categories.

It’s my belief, actually, that the best opportunity for long-term protection is to have a combination of one of these two. An RNA vaccine,

plus a DNA vaccine, or a protein vaccine plus a DNA vaccine, to allow different parts of the machinery of the human body to create different

elements of the immune system. That is a complex system’s approach that I’ve taken to cancer and I’m trying to take that to COVID.

So, it’s a marathon, as opposed to a sprint. We’ve gone through this sprint. I recognize mutations would occur. They have occurred. The variants

actually are nonresponsive now to the antibodies, which is predictable. So, we now are at the second stage, which are called the second-generation

vaccines, which we are now going bring through South Africa.

ISAACSON: Tell me about growing up in South Africa, from a family of Chinese immigrants.

SOON-SHIONG: Well, in a funny way, it was an upbringing that actually, as I said, forged everything I do. We couldn’t vote. We had no right to

property. We were poor shopkeepers. Yet, the people with whom we were surrounded by, Indian, black, Chinese-colored, so to speak, were in a sense

happy people. And that’s what I think wonderful about the South African culture. They are, in essence, happy people.

So, while there were indeed hardships and inequities, we grew up as a community. And I think what forged me, really, is to fight for the

underdog. And that’s what we’re sort of doing now. I was the first Chinese ever to be allowed to work in a white hospital. And the government said, if

I did that, I would have taken 50 percent of the salary of my peers. My peers wanted to go on strike, and I said, no, you’re not, because I want to

get the best education I can as an intern.

I was there during the 1976 Soweto uprising in which children were being shot in the back. So, I — and I volunteered. I went to the TB clinics to

help these kids. So, I think all of that background forged me as a physician, as a physician scientist, to see how I can bring technology and

create capacity in that country. And then lead from that country for all of Africa. That’s what’s needed now.

ISAACSON: How did that help inform your view or feelings about racism when you came to Los Angeles and became a newspaper owner?

SOON-SHIONG: You know, it gave me not only empathy, and you know, when you see Black Lives Matter, people have this verbiage. But unless you lived it,

you really don’t understand it. And racism is — overt racism, as it was in apartheid, but there’s subconscious racism. There’s unconscious racism and

there’s conscience racism.

And there’s — so, sadly, I began to realize, you know, when I came to this country, and, you know, UCLA is in a very nice neighborhood. And I was

looking for an apartment and then we had the ability to find a house, one of our neighbors said, how did you get the money to buy a house here?

And, you know, another USC professor said, maybe you should go back from where you came. You know, it’s — these are the kinds of statements that I

don’t think is unusual, it’s perverse in our country. And as I said, I had to stand up, especially with this Asian hate going on, that we need to

recognize it. And as a newspaper, we can speak against it, openly, and recognize it and not be afraid to call it when we can.

And ironically, I think South African is much more enlightened now, because of what Mandela has done in terms of reconciliation. The country is

enlightened. And I don’t think I see that enlightenment here yet in this country, ironically as it may seem.

ISAACSON: How could we get towards that enlightenment?

SOON-SHIONG: By recognizing who we are. You know, the country is both on the fabric of slavery. It is both on the fabric of racism. There still is

racism. And being very honest about it and recognizing it, and developing a level of compassion and humanity and dignity and respect. All of these

words are just words, but that’s happening in South Africa now, largely because of what President Mandela did with regard to reconciliation and


So, maybe two or three generations, I’m hopeful this next generation or two more generations will begin to see this. Black Lives Matter and Asian hate

is not a political statement, it’s really hopefully a movement of recognition.

ISAACSON: When you bought the “L.A. Times,” you wrote an essay in the paper, saying that the paper had covered the city in a somewhat racist way

in the past. Tell me what you mean by that. Give me some examples.

SOON-SHIONG: Well, if you look at the history, obviously, which was before my time, way before when the Chandlers that had the paper and everything

else, and it is what it is. It’s not to speak disparagingly about the evolution, but if you look at some of the terminologies that we were using,

right? I mean, for example, President Ramaphosa rightly said, you know, the (INAUDIBLE) rights is not the (INAUDIBLE) rights, it was the uprising. And

it is a very subtle terminology. Again, it’s unconscious.

So, we needed our newsroom to understand, when they say things like that, what do they really mean? Is this unconscious bias? Now, it was much more

so before we took over and we’re trying to change that by really education of everybody within the organization. And I think the good news, I’m very

pleased to say, it’s really, really — I see real progress there.

ISAACSON: And what are you doing to change the coverage of the newspaper so that it’s done with a different racial perspective?

SOON-SHIONG: Well, I think one of the things, diversity of the newsroom itself, right? I mean, I think you can’t write about a Caucasian writing

about a Latino or somebody coming from African-American does not have the same empathy or perspective of somebody living in that community. So, we’re

trying to create a diverse newsroom, all across — all the way up to the editorial level.

And as you really now see, with Kevin Merida coming onboard, and his insights, I’m really excited about that. So, we need to change it all the

way from the lowest level all the way up to the editorial level.

ISAACSON: When you hired as your top editor, recently, Kevin Merida, who is one of the foremost African-American journalists and editors in the

United States, were you doing it consciously because you were seeking or trying or hoping to get a black editor?

SOON-SHIONG: No, it wasn’t — again, that would have been, in a funny way, a racist thing to actually even look at, right? So, it was really to find

somebody, one, who really understood the community, and before — because he was such a great journalist from “The Washington Post.” And then he went

into Disney and ESPN and understood sports and to the media and understood — and in addition, obviously, he had the knowledge and empathy of the

racial issues.

So, all taken together, he was truly the perfect fit for what we need. I mean, the paper has evolved to beyond the paper. It has involved into what

I call a media platform. It’s a challenge, but we’re going to get there.

ISAACSON: In order to buy the “L.A. Times,” there was some complex dealings with the Tribune company that owned all of the papers including

the “L.A. Times” at one point, that left you with a stake in the Tribune company. And just recently, they sold to a hedge fund, Aldine Capital,

that’s caused huge amounts of controversy. You didn’t try to block that. Why not?

SOON-SHIONG: Because I’m just realistic and pragmatic. You know, I was hopeful that there would be — in fact, there was, as you may know, two

other buyers that pragmatically, I had my hands full with the “Los Angeles Times” and the “San Diego Tribune,” which I thought it was really important

for me to survive.

That paper is losing money. But now, thank God, we’re doing a slow turnaround because of all of the millions of dollars we’ve put into this

infrastructure. And I knew just realistically, just doing — you know, so, frankly, I wanted the board to make its own decision. And as you know, what

I did was just an en vote (ph). The U.S. board need to go make this the right decision. And that’s what they did.

ISAACSON: But would you prefer that newspapers go into the hands of people like yourself who want to run them and that we should try to avoid them

going into the hands of hedge funds like this?

SOON-SHIONG: Of course. I mean, I think it’s a public trust. I see the newspapers as a public trust. So — but, you know, (inaudible) has done his

thing and “Washington Post” done fantastically. Obviously, I’m trying to do it. But there aren’t many people that can afford that. It’s a losing

business. And we have to truly face the reason why that is so.

And why that is so, is because the platforms are being used through fair use and not fairly using fair use to take a work of hard reporting, and use

it freely. And then take all the advertising dollars. And how can a business therefore survive in that kind of environment? So, that’s just the

reality of life and we have to figure out a way.

So, you know, if Congress understands that newspapers is basically democracy, I have to find a way to help survive these newspapers. It can’t

be left to individuals like myself to take on the entire “Chicago Tribune” and “Florida Sentinel,” and all of the Pennsylvania, as well as “L.A.

Times” and “San Diego Tribune.” So, this is really where it really needs a national attention.

ISAACSON: Dr. Soon-Shiong, thank you so much for joining us.

SOON-SHIONG: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.

About This Episode EXPAND

When companies’ data are held hostage and they are presented with a demand for payment, should they just go ahead and pay?