Objectivity + Timidity + Stupidity =
Journamalism! It walks and squawks like a duck but it ain't.
Links are at the end, in the links correctional center.
I dunno where the Bo Concepts creative director lives, but it was obviously never a jail.
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One of the things that made the first iteration of this effort, BTC News, successful to an extent was press criticism. The blog was inaugurated in 2002, when most of the press had gone insane and were clinging to authority. The Bush administration went largely unchallenged during the year before the Iraq invasion and much of the year after. Press criticism at the time offered a lot of low-hanging fruit.
An outstanding exception to the abjection of the press back then was the Knight Ridder Washington bureau, which consistently blew up the administration’s lies before the war; yr. editor later nominated their Baghdad bureau to replace the CIA because the bureau seemed to have the better sources. The New York Times name-checked the chain in a 2004 mea culpa for their lickspittle coverage of the runup to and immediate aftermath of the invasion.
(The Knight Ridder chain was later purchased by the McClatchy family chain, which was itself purchased in 2020 by a modestly piratical hedge fund.)
The Washington Post issued their own apology for their own wretched editorial judgement during the period,as did The New Republic, sort of, and a host of other press outlets and writers including Tucker Carlson, then at CNN. The American Prospect wrote about people and press outlets who apologized and some who didn’t.
In some quarters, the theme was “we were wrong for the right reasons, while everybody who was right was right for the wrong reasons.” You can’t go wrong punching hippies; hence none of the war lovers suffered for their stupidity.
Two approaches to health insurance coverage
Bad reporting and bad editorial decisions aren’t limited to the Bush years, of course, nor to the bigger or best-known publications; you can look at any loosely defined American era and find examples. More pernicious, at least in the view of yr. editor, is the cloak of objectivity—the pressure to assume a supposedly neutral position in reporting stories with conflicting narratives.
Both-sidesing as evidence of journalistic probity and spurious objectivity is a relatively recent invention, historically speaking, dating back perhaps to the 1960s. Press critic Jay Rosen, borrowing from philosopher Thomas Nagel, calls it “the view from nowhere.”
If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.
. . .
In fact, American journalism is dumber than most journalists, who often share my sense of absurdity about these practices. A major reason we have a practice less intelligent than its practitioners is the prestige that the View from Nowhere still claims in American newsrooms.
The Washington Post health insurance story I wrote about a few days ago does some fairly strenuous both-sides lifting. On this side, the writer's (Carolyn Johnson) child made to suffer unnecessarily by insurance company practices; on that, the writer's sympathy for how insurance companies make their decisions.
Aetna required that Evan try 30 days on drugs such as naproxen or ibuprofen, or two weeks on a steroid first to see if those worked. This type of decision isn’t unusual — nearly all insurance companies use this process, called step therapy, and it’s meant to save health-care dollars. The idea is a logical one — to “step” up from inexpensive therapies to more expensive ones. It’s a guard rail to prevent unnecessary spending on drugs that cost more but may not offer much more benefit.
. . .
I was … knowledgeable, even sympathetic, to the rationale behind insurance company policies that cause immense frustration to people. I’ve interviewed insurance and drug company executives, but I also did billing for a pediatric neuropsychology practice part-time after college.
Johnson’s son eventually got the treatment his doctors recommended, months after they recommended it—months during which he spent much of his time in severe pain and unable to walk or do any of his favorite activities. And — “ironically,” she says — doctors had already tried, to little or no effect, the NSAIDs and steroids that Aetna’s denial letter demanded they try before the company would consider other treatments.
Contrast that story to a long, thoroughly reported and unequivocally one-sided ProPublica story about UnitedHealthCare’s determined efforts to stop covering a college student’s medical care at the level required to keep him functional.
Insurers have wide discretion in crafting what is covered by their policies, beyond some basic services mandated by federal and state law. They often deny claims for services that they deem not “medically necessary.”
When United refused to pay for [Christopher] McNaughton's treatment for that reason, his family did something unusual. They fought back with a lawsuit, which uncovered a trove of materials, including internal emails and tape-recorded exchanges among company employees. Those records offer an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at how one of America's leading health care insurers relentlessly fought to reduce spending on care, even as its profits rose to record levels.
That lawsuit pulled back the veil on insurance company employees and executives determined to find “independent” medical practitioners who would rubber stamp the company’s decision to ignore his doctors’ and other expert opinions supporting it, while often enough acting from, or at least with, a considerable degree of spite.
Aetna, which is owned by CVS (which also owns the country’s largest pharmaceutical benefits manager along with the mammoth CVS drug store chain), and most other large health care companies, including United, have been accused of defrauding or/and overcharging the government in their capacities as administrators of Medicaid and Medicare advantage plans.
None of them are concerned primarily with funding health care—their only corporate responsibility is maximizing profits, and they'll fight customers to do that until the fight becomes more expensive than the coverage, even though, as the McNaughtons say of United, the cost of the coverage amounts to only a few minutes' worth of profit.
Disclosure: CVS is the pharmacy benefits manager for HMSA, the local Blue Cross-Blue Shield affiliate which administers both my Medicaid and Medicare Advantage plans, a situation which sometimes results in a denial of drug coverage from one (the Advantage plan) followed by an approval for the same drug from the other. The company also owns the pharmacy where I get my prescriptions filled.
HMSA’s president, Mark Mugushi, was paid $1.8 million in 2020; CVS Health (Aetna) CEO Karen Lynch made $1.4 million in salary in 2022, and another $19 million in additional compensation. Aetna’s annual cost for the drug Carolyn Johnson’s kid needs is about $75,000.
United’s business practices are Aetna’s business practices, and they underpin the experiences of both Johnson and the McNaughton family, but you only see them fully acknowledged in one of those stories. The Johnson story is balanced in the way most editors think of the term; the McNaughton story isn’t, but it’s the more accurate.
“Newsrooms that move beyond ‘objectivity’ can build trust”
Former Washington Post executive editor Len Downie Jr. had a long piece in the Post (much longer than most op-eds are allotted) on objectivity, published the same day as Carolyn Johnson’s story about her health insurance travails.
(Somewhat hilariously, Downie Jr. was the paper’s executive editor throughout the second Bush administration, when their coverage of Iraq-related matters prompted the apologia mentioned above; even more hilariously, Liz Spayd, his second-in command at the time, who went on to become the final, fatal public editor at the New York Times,thought her boss mistaken in issuing the apology.)
Amid all the profound challenges and changes roiling the American news media today, newsrooms are debating whether traditional objectivity should still be the standard for news reporting. “Objectivity” is defined by most dictionaries as expressing or using facts without distortion by personal beliefs, bias, feelings or prejudice. Journalistic objectivity has been generally understood to mean much the same thing.
. . .
Throughout the time, beginning in 1984, when I worked as Bradlee’s managing editor and then, from 1991 to 2008, succeeded him as executive editor, I never understood what “objectivity” meant. I didn’t consider it a standard for our newsroom. My goals for our journalism were instead accuracy, fairness, nonpartisanship, accountability and the pursuit of truth.
Nonpartisanship was particularly important for a paper that was a national leader in covering politics and government. As the final gatekeeper for Post journalism, I stopped voting or making up my own mind about issues.
(So Downie became a sort of self-made idiot savant, the most powerful man at one of the most powerful newspapers in the world, but at the same time a complete chucklehead. No wonder the paper went off the rails in the 2000s.)
He goes on to applaud the journalistic establishment’s belated abandonment of faux objectivity, and their recognition of it as a standard imposed largely by “White, educated, fairly wealthy” men and women, as former AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll told him, and to grant that reporters are fully capable of reporting on events and circumstances with which their personal experiences and senses of self are entwined.
Someone who has had an abortion, e.g., can report on the impact of abortion bans; someone who lives with racism can report on examples of it and the larger framework of it; a Black woman can report on the outsize impact abortion bans have on Black women.
And so on. The Post, under Downie and still today, has never had what you could call a thoroughly integrated newsroom or masthead. One of the paper’s former star reporters, Wesley Lowery, has indirectly acknowledged that he left the Post after management there excoriated him for criticizing a New York Times story which somehow managed to avoid any mention of racism in a retrospective on the Tea Party, threatening to fire him if he did something like that — being a Black reporter publicly critiquing a story that elides racism — again.
Despite Downie’s energetic patting of his own back, the op-ed is mostly worth reading, as is the report, by Downie, former CBS News executive Andrew Heyward (who himself presided over some truly crappy Iraq coverage), and their journalism students, that his column is based on and promotes.
Yr. Editor had the best of fucking intentions
I did not intend to go incommunicado again, but this thing just kept getting longer and eating up more time; I still haven’t really edited it to my satisfaction but it has to go out sometime. Henceforth the newsletter will provide updates when something like this threatens.
The Raincoats, “The Kitchen Tapes;”The Mekons, "Journey to the End of the Night;" Luna, “Lunapark;” Patti Smith, “Gone Again;” The Vaselines, "V for Vaselines."
One thing about a post this long is that a lot of music gets consumed. All of these bands/artists are good, and a couple of them are great. Check ‘em out through the provided links.
And that, Comrades, is all I got.
I am spent. Be well, take care, share if you like my stuff, subscribe if you’ve not—it’s always free unless you want to pay.
The best journalism often starts with "WTF?"