The Tactics of Offense and Defense: How the Journal Reshapes Healthcare News

May 15th, 2013 · No Comments · health care reform, journalism, Uncategorized

By Arthur Alpert

What’s a saving grace? Well, an online dictionary says it’s “a quality that makes up for other generally negative characteristics; redeeming feature.”

I was grappling with the question, you see, of whether – where healthcare reporting is concerned – Winthrop Quigley is the Albuquerque Journal’s saving grace.

The answer is no, but don’t blame Mr. Quigley; no individual could redeem the newspaper’s comprehensively awful performance.

Two recent Quigley stories brought the question to mind. First, his front-page account headlined “Hospital costs vary wildly for same procedure” Thursday, May 9. It was based on a federal release; more on that below.

His UpFront column (where opinion and reporting meet) Tuesday, May 14, about lack of progress in establishing the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange, came second.

Appearances to the contrary, he writes, “the governor’s people” say, “there has been no deliberate effort to sabotage the exchange.”

“One is left to infer, therefore,” Quigley concludes, “that with five months to go and no exchange in sight, we are witnessing either incompetence or a miracle in the making.”

(Powerful conclusion! A tip of the old chapeau, then, to the editors for the headline – “Health exchange faces challenges”. Masterful understatement, no?)

On the way to his summing up, Quigley slams the “nonsense” retailed by Dr. Deane Waldman (an exchange board member) about Obamacare’s “death panels.”

Quigley also ridicules Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier’s characterization of Obamacare as “socialism.” She’s a board member, too.

As the Journal’s specialist on the health business, Quigley finds Obamacare imperfect, but he just hates political rhetoric. Having vented, he must feel better now.

Wish I did, too, but while Quigley’s superior reporting and plain talk are welcome, Journal management’s decision to trash Obamacare, relentlessly, in the “news” columns as well as most opinion pieces and in editorials leaves me in a funk.

The newspaper’s war involves offense and defense both.

One offensive skirmish deserving attention was the Journal’s umpteenth collaboration (March 13) with Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of AP’s Washington Bureau.

He reported on a draft application that Health and Human Services posted online to get feedback. It was long, complicated and hard to complete, he said.

No doubt that’s true, but Page One? Talk about treating a molehill like Everest! Credit the Journal’s editors with chutzpah.

Make that mega-chutzpah, please, because the following Sunday a Journal editorial used the very same Alonso-Zaldivar account to dump on Obamacare. Again.

Of course, it’s SOP for editorial writers to erect essays on reporters’ stories, in particular enterprise pieces. But in this case, whoever decided that picayune piece deserved page one probably decided to opine on it. I’d bet on it.

(Anybody remember Dick Cheney leaking a lie about Iraq to the N.Y. Times and then citing the Times’ story as evidence to a TV interviewer?)

But Journal generals, er, editors must defend as well as attack. Defense means ignoring or reshaping news that might undermine the war effort.

They did just that a few days later when the Administration did an about-face. Instead of cutting rates paid to insurance companies offering Medicare Advantage programs by 2.2 percent, as planned, it hiked payments.

To understand the Journal’s tactics here, let’s see how journalists dealt with the story.

The Washington Post story April 1 ran under this rubric:

“U.S. to boost rather than cut payments to health insurers”

 

Reporter Sandhya Somashekhar said the insurance industry and more than 100 members of the Congress objected to the cut and the insurers “mounted a vigorous campaign to persuade lawmakers to oppose the reduction.”

So the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said payments will rise by 3.3 percent. About 27 percent of beneficiaries are enrolled in Advantage plans, some 13 million folks including (full disclosure) me.

The Wall Street Journal’s approach was similar, but in his April 3 account, its reporter Jon Kamp underlined the corporate power.

“Washington wants to get tough on spending,” he wrote, “but in the latest round of payment rates for private Medicare plans insurers emerged victorious.”

After noting that shares of health insurance companies soared on the news, Kamp detailed “the insurance industry’s most intense lobbying campaign in years.”

So how did the Albuquerque Journal deal with the story?

It ignored the Washington Post account, choosing an Associated Press story instead.

And even though the decision affects Lovelace, Presbyterian, members of their Advantage plans and, indirectly, other health businesses in the state, Journal editors decided against Page One.

They ran it on the Business Page, prominently, under a rubric that puzzled me, but you decide:

Medicare Advantage warnings on wane”.

At least reporter Tom Murphy’s lead was clear:

“Medicare Advantage customers – including almost 90,00 in New Mexico – may not see the drastic benefit cuts or premium hikes next year that insurers have been warning about after all.”

Hmmm. Not a lot of skepticism on Murphy’s part about HMO tactics. (Hope he doesn’t buy cars that way.) No mention, either, of the stock market’s positive reaction to the news. And nada on what sparked Medicare’s miraculous reversal.

I googled Murphy’s original story.

Well, the Journal reproduced his lead accurately. However, he had included Wall Street’s positive reaction to insurance stocks; I surmise Journal editors excised that information.

He also wrote:

“The trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans had launched an intense lobbying and marketing push after the initial CMS announcement. It included television ad campaigns entitled “Drastic” and “Too Much.”

Journal editors found that unessential, too, or maybe space was tight.

You get the idea. In the war, offense means tearing down Obamacare while defense has two prongs – downplaying the corporate role in healthcare and skipping stories likely to cast a favorable light.

Like a dynamite report by Sarah Kliff that ran April 17 in the Washington Post under the rubric “Want to know the future of Obamacare? Take a look at Fort Dodge, Iowa” from which I learned something. Do check it out.

In sum, the Journal’s politicizing of healthcare issues dwarfs Quigley’s admirable journalistic attempts to describe reality.

PS Quigley’s front-page piece on wild variations in hospital pricing was based on numbers that Health and Human Services released in response to Steven Brill’s extraordinary, lengthy exposé of health care costs in the March 4 Time Magazine.

That journalistic coup made big waves nationally and provoked howls from the industries in charge of our health – hospitals, insurance and drug-makers.

The Albuquerque Journal ignored it.

However, now that the Journal has published Quigley’s report on the HHS numbers, it could assign a crack investigative reporter to follow up by examining how the health industry works in New Mexico. And the editors could solicit and publish guest columns (plural) that examine the same topic critically.

When pigs fly, they will.

What drives the Journal’s “news coverage” is disdain for almost anything public or communal alongside deification of almost anything selfish and asocial.

Thus, sadly, Winthrop Quigley’s work will remain a grace that doesn’t save.

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