Minimalism Meets Journalism: HSD Audit Alteration Story

December 1st, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism, state government

By Arthur Alpert

Last time, I dealt with the macrocosm, the amazing congruence of the Albuquerque Journal’s narrative with the Koch brothers’ political agenda. Today, let’s zoom in on a microcosm. I refer to the Journal’s coverage of the ongoing drama sparked by the State Human Services Department’s decision to stop funding 15 mental health providers and replace them with other contractors.

Here’s the latest development in the story:

The Public Consulting Group audit cited by the State Human Services Department in its decision said PCG “did not uncover what it would consider to be credible allegations of fraud, nor any significant concerns related to consumer safety,” but HSD blacked out that sentence in the version supplied to State Auditor Hector Balderas in response to a subpoena.

He said that in a new court filing. HSD says the state Medicaid told it to remove the sentence.

Now let’s see how three news organizations handled the story. First, here’s the top of the Las Cruces Sun News’ account:

Auditor troubled over altered mental health audit

By Barry Massey

Associated Press

SANTA FE- State Auditor Hector Balderas is questioning why a state agency provided his office with a behavioral health audit report that was altered to remove a conclusion that auditors found no “credible evidence of fraud” in a review of case files for more than a dozen providers under investigation for potential misconduct.

Got that? Good. Now here’s how the Santa Fe New Mexican handled it:

Balderas: Why was audit altered?

Associated Press

State Auditor Hector Balderas is questioning why a state agency provided his office with a behavioral health audit report that was altered to remove a conclusion that auditors found no “credible allegations of fraud” in a review of case files for more than a dozen providers under investigation for potential misconduct.

Keep both in mind, please, as you consider the Albuquerque Journal’s treatment of the story:

Balderas back in court over HSD audit

State auditor objects to alterations in report he received

By Deborah Baker, Journal Capitol Bureau

Santa Fe – State Auditor Hector Balderas says the Human Services Department gave him an altered version of an audit of behavioral health providers after he subpoenaed the document in July, and he’s back in court to get the original.

OK, let’s parse the differences, beginning with the headlines.

The Las Cruces newspaper said Auditor Balderas was “troubled” by an “altered audit.”

The New Mexican attributed a question to him, specifically, “Why was audit altered?”

The Journal told us, first, that he was back in court and in the second deck that he “objects to alterations.”

I find this a wonderful example of what the art world – and headline writing is an art – calls minimalism. It’s accurate, of course, but says the head tells us nothing about the crux of the matter and the second deck, darn little.

In fact, only a Michelangelo of the rubric trade could say less.

While you ponder why the Journal headline writer took that tack, let’s look at the leads.

The AP story by Barry Massey that the Las Cruces paper published includes the heart of the matter in its lead, that the auditors found “no credible evidence of fraud.”

So did the AP story the Santa Fe daily published.

At the Journal, however, it didn’t appear until paragraph six. Let me hasten to add that reporter Deborah Baker’s decision to write it that way, if she did, is no crime; probably she was intent on making absolutely clear the sequence of events.

But that approach did enable a Journal editor to omit the crux of the matter from the headlines.

Also note the Journal placed this story on the Metro page, not on Page One.

Now back on Sept. 16, my colleague Denise Tessier looked at the Journal’s coverage of the long running HSD audit story and pronounced it “piecemeal” and not as “pointed” as some other news outlets’ coverage.

Fair enough, I thought at the time, but the Journal’s coverage was also late and passion-free. The online New Mexico in Depth and its partner, the Las Cruces Sun-News pushed the story forward along with the Santa Fe Reporter and KUNM Radio. The Journal always seemed to be playing catch-up.

To their credit, the editors handled this latest development in a timely fashion, but their treatment of it suggests to me they would rather readers find the drama boring and turn the page.

Agree or disagree, I would value your comments, as always.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Mike Folsom

    This isn’t surprising at all. This is the general tactic used by the Journal when it faces news that puts someone or some thing that it supports in a bad light.

    The Journal supports the Martinez Administration and it will do all it can to “soft peddle” any news that may reflect badly on her or her administration. If they can’t get away with ignoring it or softening it some way they will attack the source of the news or the motives of one of the players involved in the situation.

    An example of such an attack is their response to the National Journal’s article on Martinez and McCleskey essentially saying that Martinez was a creation of McCleskey who now plays an essential role in her administration and drives policy. They finally responded to this publication with an op-ed attack on the article and its author (see Joe Monahan’s post at http://tinyurl.com/q5vxe53 for more info). They do not address the specific issues raised by the article rather they attack the credibility of the source of the news the Journal does not like.

    Another example of these attacks is today’s (12-02-2013) editorial on the on-going rollout of the new Teacher Evaluation system by NM’s Public Education Dept. (PED) where they continue their attacks on Ellen Bernstein, the President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. Since they support the Martinez Administration and really aren’t a fan of Teachers or Unions in general they adopt the line that all educational problems in New Mexico can be solved if only Teachers did a better job. So, they set out to bash the only institution the Teachers have that supports them. Again nothing new – this has been going on for years and is normal for the Albuquerque Journal.

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