Thursday, August 12, 2010

Why we should always read skeptically

Today's cribbed Game & Fish press release carries an object lesson in the reliability of self-generated news stories and why newspapers have to investigate stories carefully if they are to maintain their own credibility.

Back in the "Getting Out" section we find "Central figure in Macho B incident to pay $8,000 fine," slugged "Special to the Courier", by which we understand that the Courier got it whole and ran it unedited, i.e. a press release. In it we find the Game and Fish Commission fining the guy who originally trapped the last jaguar in AZ and revoking his game privileges for a "prohibited take," meaning he baited and intentionally trapped the animal illegally while working as a contractor on a Game & Fish cougar study. He also drew five years' probation and a $1,000 fine in criminal court.

Comparing this end-of-the-legal-road story with the first report on the incident back in February '09 is illuminating. In that press release, carried here, Game & Fish wrote that "The male cat was incidentally captured" by the department during the study -- by accident, in other words. They collared him and released him, but recaptured him after his movements seemed wrong, diagnosed him with terminal kidney failure and killed him, setting off a small but firm national wave of outrage. News stories like this focused on that decision and how it was reached, but generally glossed over the original capture, which no cat-owner will deny very likely precipitated the health problem (if there was one) and the cat's death.

The outrageous inaccuracy of the agency's first release, whether intentional, mistaken or just sloppy, should raise hackles in the Governor's office and red flags in every newsroom. For readers, when you see "Special to the Courier," you should read it as "Unsubstantiated Happy Talk and Lies." For the editors, I'd recommend you quit running press releases as news without checking them. No serious news organization does this. If you must carry them, label them properly and protect yourself from what's in them, because readers tend to assume you're actually doing your job.

Casserly: Prescott a microcosm of health care's future

I've been watching the recently-recurring column of JJ Casserly for a little while to get a bead on where this " longtime newsman and author" is coming from. From traces left on the Net, he ghostwrote an autobiography of Barry Goldwater in the '80s, apparently worked for the Republic for a while, and claims to have covered the Vatican "for years."

JJ's pieces have been more or less innocuous till now, but today he steps over the line into right-wing scare propaganda with this piece on Medicare.

JJ parrots Republican talking points designed to frighten you about health-care reform. The "no one has read it" canard is a quick tipoff for anyone paying attention to the slant here.

He leads off with "the Obama administration will cut present Medicare payments by $529 billion." This is a lie. JJ knows that when he writes "Medicare payments," most readers will think it means "payments to doctors for my care." The $529 billion figure (in reality, about $500 billion) is a ten-year goal for cost savings in Medicare by reducing fraud, abuse and inefficiencies within this gargantuan program. $200 billion of that will come relatively quickly with elimination of Medicare Advantage, a Bush-era program designed to line the already fat pockets of the HMOs we all hate. The legislation specifically forbids reduction of benefits to achieve that goal.

"Health experts say it will be impossible to get the massive enterprise up and running within a year or two," says Casserly -- yup, and that's why most of its benefits don't begin before 2014. I expect he's quoting experts who are in favor of the new system, even advising the administration. But he's flipped the implication to support his thesis. This makes it a lie.

JJ quotes Barnett saying, "What the feds will do is create greater rationing of dollars, cutting their payments to doctors and hospitals. That will ration care," indicating that he does not know what's in the legislation in terms of legal language or intent. What's true is that the system -- not yet operating, remember -- requires that Medicare maintain benefit levels. Notice also that he doesn't touch on the influence of varying state laws and policies on how to distribute Medicare funds. We're seeing lots of problems now because state legislators are raiding the cookie jar, and unraveling that will be a broader challenge than implementing the Affordable Care Act.

Probably the most egregious violation of journalistic ethics comes with this: "Barnett is concerned about the latitude that the Department of Health and Human Services will have in interpreting the new law. Bureaucrats will have absolute power in many health decisions. Just how fair and balanced they may be is open to question." This and a later graf evoke the "death panels" lie, and its the big lie. In point of simple fact, the system will allow no legal interference or influence by the bureaucracy on doctor-patient decisions. That's a problem created by HMOs, and an important part of what the new law is designed to fix.

JJ even tosses the phony illegal-immigration bomb. I'm sorely disappointed that the Courier has brought on yet another regular columnist who has so little respect for his readers that he'll lie and cheat to convince readers to vote his way. Shame on him, and shame on the editors.