That was the headline on a story that CBS’ Washington Bureau sent to its affiliates last fall.
CBS correspondent Susan McGinnis narrates the piece: “During the 10 years that Debra Fishericks has worked at Atkinson Realty, the company has provided group health insurance with manageable premiums,” McGinnis explains –“until owner Betsy Atkinson learned the policy would be terminated because it doesn’t meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.
“Debra has scoured the website looking for a new policy,” McGinnis adds, referring to healthcare.gov, but “so far, she cannot afford the premiums.”
“They just keep going up higher and higher when there is a pre-existing condition,” says Fishericks.
McGinnis wraps up the story: “Debra hopes that eventually she will find a plan that fits her budget so that she can still makes trips to Indiana –to visit her grandson.”
The camera then turns to Fishericks, sitting at her desk, looking at a photo of her grandson. “If I can’t go to see him—that’s the worst,” she says. And she begins to cry.
I was astonished: I thought most people understood that, under the Affordable Care Act, insurers can no longer charge a customer more because she suffers from a pre-existing condition.
Later, when I interviewed Fishericks, I realized that she honestly believed she was going to have to pay more for coverage because she had been diagnosed with cancer. Like a great many Americans, she didn’t understand how the ACA would protect her. Given how hard Obamacare’s opponents have worked to obscure the law’s benefits, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
But what shocked me is that no one at CBS’s Washington Bureau seemed to realize that what Fishericks had said just wasn’t true: not the correspondent who narrated the story, not the reporter who went down to Virginia Beach and interviewed Fishericks, not the person who edited the video.
Fifty-eight CBS stations aired the piece. Newspapers and bloggers ran with it. Nationwide, millions of Americans were left with the impression that under Obamacare, cancer patients may not be able to afford insurance.
How had this happened?
Producers at CBS Hang Up On Me
As I explained in the first part of this post, I began by calling the CBS correspondent, Susan McGinnis, and we exchanged emails. In the end, she conceded that: “the Affordable Care Act does indeed specify, in Section 1201, that . . . a health plan cannot deny enrollment, or the plan’s benefits, to someone based on that person’s preexisting condition.”
I appreciated the fact that she had looked at the law, but I could not help but wonder: Was this the first time she had heard of this provision?
Meanwhile, she still seemed skeptical as to whether a patient like Fishericks would receive the care she needs. After agreeing that an insurer would have to sell her a policy without jacking up the premium, McGinnis’ e-mail continued:
“However that certainly does not mean a plan has to include coverage for ongoing treatment that a patient started before obtaining coverage in an exchange plan on January 1, 2014.
“Key to understanding this distinction” she added, “is that having ‘health coverage’ is not the same as actually obtaining ‘health care.’”
If the line sounds familiar it may be because it’s a favorite among the ACA’s ace fear-mongers. Back in 2012, Romney healthcare adviser Avik Roy headlined a Forbes column: “Why health insurance is not the same as health care.”
In fact, as I explained to McGinnis, under Obamacare cancer treatments and follow-up are an “essential benefit” that insurer’s must cover. In the event that an insurer refused to continue a particular medication or procedure, the ACA strengthens a patient’s right to appeal—and requires a speedy answer, both from the carrier and from an external appeals board.
That McGinnis had swallowed a conservative talking point surprised me. Had everyone at the Washington Bureau drunk the Republican Kool-Aid? I wanted to talk to more people at CBS.
The first person I reached was a producer at the Washington Bureau who was familiar with the video. But when I brought up the misleading sound bite, the producer, who identified herself as “Heather” was adamant: “She never said that!”
“But it’s there, in the transcript, and I heard it in the video,” I insisted. “How can you deny it?’
(Later, I would find out that when Heather said “She never said that!” she thought I was claiming that McGinnis, not Fisherwicks, suggested that insurers could charge a customer more if she suffered from a pre-existing condition.)
Before I had a chance to ask any more questions, she announced in a slightly mocking, sing-song voice: “I’m- Hanging -Up -Now. Good-Bye.”
Frustrated, I decided to call the Washington Bureau Chief. His assistant was friendly, and took a long message.
Less than an hour later, I received a call from the bureau’s Deputy Chief—Ward Sloane.
He did not sound happy.
I explained my concerns about the story. He listened.
When I finished, he replied: “Or so YOU Say.” His tone was caustic.
“Hold on,” I replied. “Can’t we at least agree that under the Affordable Care Act, insurers cannot charge a customer more because he suffers from a pre-existing condition?”
“Is that the way it’s supposed to work?” he asked. “We really don’t know. . .”
He seemed to be saying that we don’t know how Obamacare will play out. (As I will explain in part 3, this has become a common theme in the mainstream media: “Nobody knows. . .” )
“Are you saying that we don’t know what is in the bill?” I asked, “Or that there is no provision which prohibits insurers from jacking up premiums if someone has cancer? Let me write that down.”
“No you won’t!” Now he was shouting. “I’m Done!” He slammed down the phone.
Who Is Responsible For Explaining the ACA to the Public?
I wanted to know more about Sloane. When I Googled his name.” I discovered a 2011 “Political Roundtable” where Sloane blames the White House for failing to spell out how the Affordable Care Act would affect the average person.
“To me this is a monumental failure by the Obama administration,” Sloane declared. “Republicans can say whatever they want about the healthcare bill, whether it’s true or not, and . . . it will resonate . . . People are afraid of things that they don’t understand and they don’t know. . . The Republicans are playing to this fear, and they’re doing a masterful job.”
On another occasion, Sloane groused that President Obama is “great at soaring rhetoric, but when it comes down to explaining to the American public why this matters to them . . . .” The CBS producer made it clear that the president has fallen short.
Up to a point, I agree with Sloane: Bill Clinton is far better at explaining wonky detail to the public (see this post and scroll down to this sub-head: “What the President Should Have Said”. ) And there is no question: Conservatives have done a “masterful job” of taking advantage of the uncertainty about Obamacare. As Nancy Pelosi suggested shortly before the legislation passed Congress, “the fog of controversy” has left many Americans befuddled as to what reform will mean for them.
But here is my question: why haven’t journalists done a better job of lifting the fog?Perhaps because they, too, have been confused by a blizzard of conservative sound bites designed to foster cynicism, doubt and suspicion
CBS Takes the Video off Its Server—But the Damage Has Been Done
After Sloane hung up on me, I waited ten minutes, then called the D.C. bureau again.
This time, Heather, the producer who had hung up on me an hour earlier, answered the phone. To my surprise, she was much friendlier.
She confided that she had just been talking to Ward Sloane, and that CBS would be pulling the story from their website and taking it down from the server that goes to their affiliates.
But the story had aired in November—and then went viral. CBS was closing the barn door.
Heather agreed: ideally that sound-bite would have been eliminated when the story was edited. “The problem is with the Internet,” she added, “once something gets out there, it is impossible to reel it back in.” But isn’t this all the more reason why journalists should be very careful to check their facts?
She also explained that originally, she thought I said that McGinnis, the CBS correspondent, had made the misleading remark about pre-conditions. “I knew she wouldn’t say that!”
Later, I asked whether CBS was thinking about running a retraction.
“There is no really efficient way to get it out there” she replied. “And the problem is not what Susan (McGinnis) said. It was this other woman’s mis-characterization.”
CBS was still hung up on the notion that their correspondent hadn’t made a mistake. But “this other woman” was their source, and the heroine of their story.
My Final Conversation with Debra—the Truth Comes Out
I decided to phone Fishericks one more time. I suspected she would be pleased that CBS was taking the story down. And I had two or three more questions that I wanted to ask her . . .
She was, indeed, glad to hear the news.
But she was still furious with CBS.
“They told me that they would send me a release, and that they would let me know when the story was going to air. They never did.”
I wanted to give CBS a chance to respond, so I emailed McGinnis, who had told me that she was in charge of the project. .
She replied: “I know of no release. Our story was honestly found, honestly reported, and honestly aired.”
Debra was not impressed: “CBS is not looking very good right now. But,” she added, “There is accountability. Thank you for being steadfast.”
I thanked her–and thanked her for taking my calls.
I also explained that I had finally reached her boss, Betsy Atkinson, and she had said that she thought Debra had finally found coverage. Was this true?
“I will be buying a new policy, early this year, before our insurance runs out,” Fishericks replied, “but I won’t be buying Obamacare.”
“Are you aware that you might get a generous tax credit from the government if you purchase a policy on the Exchange?” I asked. (Her boss had told me that Fishericks earned less than $45,000, and so I assumed that she would qualify.
“Not interested,” she replied smoothly, adding that she didn’t want to deal with “the red tape.”
I wanted to help. “But most people who earn under $45,000 are very happy to have the government’s help. Are you sure you can afford the premium?”
“I can manage it. I may go on my husband’s plan. Though there is also an Anthem plan that I like and can afford.”
This was the first I had heard for a husband who had health benefits at work. Had that come up in her CBS interview? If so, why did CBS portray her as someone who couldn’t afford insurance?
At this point I also realized that their combined salaries might well mean that she would not be eligible for a government subsidy after all.
What was clear was that she wasn’t worried about the cost. So much for that heart-wrenching moment at the end of the video when the CBS narrator suggests that unless she finds a plan that “fits her budget,” in the future Debra might not be able to afford a trip to visit her grandson.
Now, I asked her a question that I had been waiting to ask: “Debra, is your cancer in remission?”
I had been reluctant to ask this. For cancer patients, the whole issue of remission and recurrence is terrifying.
But both in the video and on the phone, Debra did not look or sound like someone fighting kidney cancer. And I knew that she was working full-time . . .
Still, I wasn’t ready for her reply:
“I don’t have cancer. I had a cancerous mass in my right kidney, but it was removed.”
“When?” I asked.
The CBS headline, “Woman Battling Kidney Cancer Losing Company Health Plan Due To Obamacare” didn’t just exaggerate her plight. It was flat-out wrong.
This is what she meant, in our first interview, when she said they had “gotten the story all wrong.”
Presumably, CBS was looking for a poster child for Obamacare
But when a reporter went down to Virginia Beach to interview Debra couldn’t she see that Fishericks really didn’t look or act like someone struggling to stay alive? (Symptoms of kidney cancer include: pain in the side that won’t go away, weight loss, fever, and exhaustion.)
Should the reporter have known the signs of kidney cancer? No, absolutely not. But she might have asked Debra how she was doing. (Perhaps she did; I don’t know. CBS wouldn’t give me her name.)
Debra was still angry: “They wanted to “glorify’ the cancer angle—I don’t know why. I would Never play the cancer sympathy card.
She sounded so adamant, I asked: Why?
Again, I wasn’t ready for her answer.
Her three-year-old grandson has a malignant brain tumor.
“That’s why I was crying at the end of the video,” Debra confided. She spoke softly: “I was looking at his picture and thinking—not about me, but about him.”
No wonder she was so furious: She felt used.
CBS had used her and abused in a way that no professional journalist should ever treat a source. And in the end they blamed her for the error in their video.
Debra has not pretended to be a healthcare expert. She simply told the reporter what she thought to be true. And they ran with it.
CBS Is Just One of Many Major Media Outlets
But the problem is not confined to CBS.
In part 3 of this post I will ask: “Why Do So Many Reporters know so little about the Affordable Care Act?”
Is not just that they haven’t read the 2,000-plus pages of legislation—that I understand. Most journalists don’t have time to wade through the bill.
But when one of Obamacare’s detractors makes a statement about the Affordable Care Act, few reporters fact-check it.
For example: No doubt you have heard the charge that Obamcare will turn us into a nation of part-timers: The ACA’s opponents point out that the law insists that small businesses with 50 to 99 full-time employees (averaging 30 hours a week) must start insuring workers by 2016. Those with 100 or more are required to begin offering insurance in 2015.
Small businesses are the engine of job growth, conservatives argue. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act they will hire fewer full-time workers. Even worse, many will cut current employees hours to 29 or less.
True or False?
“Google” makes it easy to check. Type in “Obamacare” and “small business” and “full-time” and Google will take you to “Obamacarefacts.com.” There, you will discover that “Small businesses with 50-99 full-time equivalent employees will need to start insuring workers by 2016. Those with a 100 or more will need to start providing health benefits in 2015.” http://obamacarefacts.com/obamacare-employer-mandate.php
Any reporter who possesses just a smidgen of curiosity is bound to wonder: “What are full-time equivalent employees?”
The Fact Sheer explains: “In simple terms FTE or “full-time equivalent” equals (the total number of full-time employees) plus (the combined number of Part-time employee hours divided by 30).
In other words, when the government count “full-time employees,” it doesn’t just count heads, it counts hours. If a business has 50 full-time employees working 30 hours a week, and cuts 10 back to 15 hours, it will have only 40 full-time employees. But it will have to hire more part-timers
Let’s say a small company hires 20 new part-time workers, each putting in 15 hours a week. Combined, they will be working 300 hours. Divide 300 by 30 and you have 10 “full time equivalents.” Add 10 to the 40 remaining full-time workers and the company now has 50 “full-time or full-time equivalent employees.”
The business won’t have to insure the 20 part-timers, but it will have to insure the 40 who work full-time, or pay the penalty. And it will have to train 20 new employees. Hardly a brilliant business plan.
A reporter who knows how to Goggle could figure this out in less than 10 minutes.But too many journalists just focus on “the news”—what a conservative said today, what the White House Press Secretary said in reply—without comparing the pols’ and pundits’ claims to the legislation passed in 2010. It’s there in black & white, waiting for fact-checkers.
In final section of this post, I’ll discuss other reasons why so many news outlets wind up spreading misinformation, and what “knowledge-based journalism” would mean.