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THEY DON’T CARE! Trudy Lieberman gets it right about that hospital story: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 8, 2008

THEY DON’T CARE: It was fairly obvious where things were heading when Anne Kornblut published a slightly odd news report in last Thursday’s Washington Post. “In Speeches, Clinton Often Veers to the Dark Side,” the report’s slightly odd headline said. Somewhat weirdly, Kornblut described the “heart-rending anecdote[s]” Hillary Clinton tells during speeches on the campaign trail. Early on, Kornblut noted the fact that many candidates, “from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush,” have told this type of story—“have honed the art of picking out stories to bolster a policy position in particularly human terms.” “For all of his grandeur, Obama can turn serious as well,” she rather weirdly said.

Everyone does it, Kornblut said. But for anyone who has followed our “political journalism” over the past many years, the likely point of Kornblut’s report soon reared its head, we suspected—in the following bit of slightly tilted novelization, for instance. Note the way Kornblut simply imagines her character’s state of mind:

KORNBLUT (4/3/08): Perhaps the most shocking story Clinton has conveyed in recent months happened on Feb. 22, when a Dallas police officer was killed in an accident while escorting her motorcade. Late that night, in front of a riled-up crowd in Toledo that seemed only vaguely aware of what had happened, she described an "accident that resulted in his death, and it was just an incredibly sad loss, not only for his family—he was a wonderful man; I visited the hospital and got a chance to express my sympathy to his family—but to the police department."

Even though it was past 10:30 on a Friday night, she seemed determined to hush the crowd with a solemn message, saying: "It was really a reminder of the extraordinary work that our law enforcement officials do for us."

It couldn’t be that Clinton told this story because she was upset by what had happened. As the worst of these novelists frequently do, Kornblut wormed her way inside Clinton’s head, offering an invented account in which Clinton’s state of mind was familiar—and was vaguely unattractive. Nine years earlier, similar rules had applied to Gore. Gore couldn’t have asked about a sick child because his own son had once hovered near death. No, there had to be an unflattering motive—he was trying to be just like Bill Clinton. It was pure (and nasty) novelization, but a string of reporters typed it up. And George Bush reached the White House.

Why did Kornblut write this slightly odd story? We were most struck by something near the end, when she reached the hospital story. Uh-oh! In this account, we spied a key fact: For whatever reason, the Washington Post was fact-checking Clinton’s anecdotes:

KORNBLUT: But it is the story of the pregnant pizza worker to which Clinton comes back repeatedly. At a Democratic dinner on March 2, she recounted it in full. She told it at a late-night rally in Cleveland just two days before the Ohio primary March 4, bringing the noisy audience to near-silence. She told it again in Charleston, W.Va, last month. Even her daughter, Chelsea, who was with her mother in Ohio when she heard the story, repeated it at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania last week. Clinton was told the story by Bryan Holman, the Meigs County deputy sheriff, who said the deceased woman was Trina Bachtel, whom campaign officials had been unable to identify.

Bachtel, Holman said, had been turned away from the hospital not only for lack of $100 but also because she had unpaid bills—a detail that Clinton has not mentioned. Public records show that Bachtel of Pomeroy, Ohio, died on Aug. 15, 2007, at age 35. She previously had thousands of dollars in hospital debt, but it was paid off by 2005.

To us, that highlighted statement seemed suggestive. For some reason, the Post had gone around checking “public records” about this anecdotal event. (They had also gotten Holman’s name, and they had interviewed him.) Because we’ve seen this movie before, we suspected we might be seeing the “Goring” of Clinton. Recently, Clinton had made a misstatement about her landing in Tuzla, and it was being widely flogged. Now, the Post was fact-checking public records about a fairly tangential matter—praying, we would have to suspect, that they might find misstatements again.

Two days later, all the excitement led an Ohio hospital to say that they hadn’t turned Bachtel away. “Ohio Hospital Contests A Story Clinton Tells,” said the headline on Deborah Sontag’s report in the New York Times. In fact, Clinton had never named any hospital in the course of telling this story (nor had she ever used Bachtel’s name). But as a result of Kornblut’s report, a local Ohio paper had written a further story, and the finger of blame had started to point at the hospital which was now complaining in Sontag’s report. This led to predictable pundit grumbling about Clinton’s vast dishonesty. By last night, for example, a credulous cable host was making this unwise but predictable statement:

MATTHEWS (47/08): Welcome back to Hardball. So what else is new out there in politics? Well, for weeks, Senator Clinton has been retelling a hospital horror story about an uninsured pregnant woman who died along with her baby because she couldn’t pay for her treatment. Here’s Senator Clinton reflecting this past Friday on that tragedy.

CLINTON (videotape): As I was listening to this story being told, I was just aching inside. It is so wrong, in such a good, great and rich country, that a young woman and her baby would die because she didn`t have health insurance or $100 to get examined.

MATTHEWS: Well, it turns out that story wasn’t true. Administrators of O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio, told Saturday`s New York Times that the woman Clinton describes as being not insured and refused treatment was both. A hospital CEO pleaded, quote, "We implore the Clinton campaign to immediately desist from repeating this story." A Clinton campaign spokesman said, "If the hospital claims it did not happen that way, we respect that." Well, we shouldn’t have to wait until Saturday to find out what a politician was talking about earlier. Anyway, that’s the story.

Poor Chris! He was appalled to think that a politician’s story “wasn’t true.”

For the record, watching Matthews advocate accurate statement is one of life’s greatest ironies. (Has anyone in American history played with facts so constantly?) At any rate, we rolled our eyes at Matthews’ highly credulous statement. “That story wasn’t true,” he said, without qualification. And he knew this because a single hospital administrator, in Ohio, had made a statement—a statement he himself hadn’t checked

As usual, Matthews didn’t really know what he was talking about. And sure enough! One hour later, Kornblut appeared on Race for the White House and warned the panel, at the end of the show, that Clinton’s story might be more accurate than had been thought. “My prediction is that the Hillary hospital story is going to, perhaps, have a surprise ending,” she coyly said. “In the end, it may turn out that Hillary Clinton was closer to the truth than we thought.” This morning, Kornblut authors this short report; according to Kornblut, Bachtel’s aunt “said in an interview Monday that Hillary Clinton has been telling the story accurately.” Some facts are still a but unclear. But for the fullest current account of this matter, we recommend this AP report by ex-Postman Charles Babington.

Our views on what happened here:

First, Clinton shouldn’t have told this story, in part because it hadn’t been fact-checked—in part, because she was so clearly a major press corps target. Why did the Post spend its time and resources checking those public records? We can’t answer that. But the pattern here is quite familiar to anyone who has watched this film about other Big Dems, especially about Candidate Gore. By their own admission, the press corps “fact-checked” quite selectively when it came to Candidates Bush and Gore—and they mind-read Gore quite thoroughly. This allowed them to tell the story they loved: Gore is a big liar, just like Bill Clinton. When we read Kornblut’s report last week, we suspected Clinton was now getting Gored—that the press corps was now working to churn a novel about her own vast lying. Does everybody get fact-checked this way? History, and current experience, say that they do not.

Second, pundits shouldn’t have spoken with certainty based on a single hospital’s unchecked report. This was a dumb thing for people like Matthews to do: Sometimes, hospital spokespersons don’t tell you the truth; sometimes, as in this case, they may not actually know the full story. But Matthews (and others) weren’t doing journalism; they were mainly retyping a favorite old novel. And so, like Clinton, they failed to fact-check their story thoroughly. They asserted far more than they knew.

But for our most important conclusion, we direct you to this valuable post by Trudy Lieberman at Columbia Journalism Review. Lieberman authored her post before we learned that Clinton’s story “was closer to the truth than we thought.” But Lieberman went past the predictable sniper fire about Clinton. She got to the heart of what matters:

LIEBERMAN (4/7/08): It’s easy for news outlets to chortle about Clinton fibbing (see Bosnia, sniper fire) after the fact. But beyond candidate stumbles, we would like to see news outlets find the real health care stories and problems that are out there—there are so many—and then ask a better question: How would each candidate’s plan change the stories?

Omigod! Lieberman wants the press corps to stop typing novels. If some particular anecdote proves untrue, she would like them to “find the real health care stories.” (“There are so many,” she correctly notes.) She’d like them ask serious questions about the way our heath care system really works.

As Lieberman suggests, there are a million health care stories out there. If we had a more serious discourse, news orgs would have used this campaign to examine our system in detail. But we don’t have a serious discourse, and plutocrat clowns like Matthews are slaves to their novels. Will this press corps do what Lieberman wants? We thought of Ryan Lizza’s recent portrait of the way they conduct about affairs:

LIZZA (2/25/08): Conversations on the Straight Talk are not always about McCain’s views on Iraq or tax reform or, really, substantive issues of any kind. Rather, the scene consists of long stretches of banter punctuated by short, intense discussions of politics and policy. A rotating cast of characters—the loyalists who have stuck with him, some without pay—provide comic relief and distraction when McCain becomes bored or wants to change the subject.

Watching our political press corps at work, Lizza noted “short discussions” of policy—and “long stretches of banter.” We’ll take a guess—this gang of ghouls will not produce the types of discussions Lieberman wants. In Campaign 2000, policy discussions only served to further the press corps’ character tales. Regarding major policy matters themselves, your press corps quite plainly didn’t care. (Regarding Social Security privatization, for example, Candidate Bush was providing bold leadership—and Candidate Gore was being nasty and negative. That was all you needed to know. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/30/06.)

Your press corps plainly didn’t care—and so it seems to us today. For both reasons we have noted, Clinton shouldn’t have told that story without having it thoroughly fact-checked. But on the whole, your press corps simply doesn’t care about policemen who get killed in campaign motorcades, or about pregnant women who die in small towns. (Nine years ago, they didn’t care about five-year-old children who were sick.) Your press corps cares about dim-witted, dime-store novels, in which they chase down their favorite targets. Over the years, their fact-checking has been extremely selective, as they thunder, complain and rail about the deeply troubling character flaws they themselves so grossly display.

Will your press corps “find the real health care stories?” Do you have to ask?

DIGBY’S TAKE: Here’s Digby’s account of this matter, posted yesterday. Our view: Democrats have to learn how to explain these matters to average voters. In our view, here’s the simplest form of the story:

WHAT HAPPENS: Quite often, they hand you novels about the candidates in place of real journalism. Over the course of the past twenty years, these novels have strongly tended to disparage the character of Major Dems.

Gore is the obvious example. Today, he holds the Nobel Peace Prize. Eight years ago, they invented tales about him for two years–while hyping the now-discredited Bush. This is a simple, and important, story. Liberals have refused to tell it.

By the way: The mainstream press corps did this to Gore, far more than anyone else. Why do “career liberals” stay away from this tale? The conflict is blindingly obvious.

To their credit, conservatives fought back against the press corps, starting in the 1960s. Liberals, it seems, never will. The mainstream press corps doesn’t care about health care. Career liberals don’t care who wins.