When Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik saw Deborah Cavallaro tell her story on television, something about it didn’t add up.
Cavallaro is a real-estate agent and investor in Westchester, Calif. She’s also become a minor media celebrity in the past few weeks, repeatedly sharing her story of how the Affordable Care Act will raise her medical costs. Since October 23, Cavallaro has been interviewed on the NBC Nightly News, CNBC, the public radio show “Marketplace,” two local Los Angeles TV newscasts, and in Hiltzik’s own newspaper.
As all the news reports have noted, Cavallaro’s insurer informed her that it’s canceling her policy and instead offering a new plan with a higher premium. “Her only option is to be forced into a policy she doesn’t want and can’t afford,” reported KCBS-TV. “For the first time in my whole life, I will be without insurance,” she lamented on KNBC-TV.
“There were just a lot of gaps in her story,” Hiltzik told me in a phone conversation this week. “It just seemed to me that all the people who were going on the air and telling her story were leaving critical things out.”
So Hiltzik – a Pulitzer Prize winner who regularly writes about health care — did something relatively uncommon for mainstream newspaper writers. He called Cavallaro, conducted his own interview, and used his blog to poke holes in the other news organizations’ stories.
Browsing on Covered California, the state’s new online insurance exchange, Hiltzik found little basis for Cavallaro’s fear – unchallenged in most of the news stories — that she’ll be forced to pay sharply higher premiums or be left without insurance at all. In fact, Hiltzik found that Cavallaro can choose among several health plans, including at least one with similar benefits and lower premiums than her current policy.
“[T]he reporters who interviewed her without getting all the facts produced inexcusably shoddy work,” Hiltzik wrote in an Oct. 30 blog post.
Media fact-checking the media
Hiltzik is one of several journalists and bloggers who’ve taken it upon themselves to debunk “horror stories” about Obamacare, including Erik Wemple in The Washington Post, Eric Stern in Salon, and Paul Waldman in The American Prospect (where Hiltzik first learned about Cavallaro). They and other writers identified gaps in media reports about disgruntled consumers who appeared on “CBS This Morning,” Fox News’s “Hannity,” and other outlets.
“The whole concept of the media checking the media is a new phenomenon,” said Duke University professor Bill Adair, a Poynter adjunct faculty member who created the Politifact website.
“People in the media are realizing that they need to hold everybody accountable, including their colleagues,” Adair said in a phone interview.
In the not-so-distant past, mainstream news organizations generally avoided direct criticism of their competitors’ journalism. While it wasn’t unusual for newspapers and broadcasters to follow up on other organizations’ reporting – and sometimes find errors in those earlier stories — such matters traditionally were handled relatively politely.
“Sometimes we would say, ‘Contrary to reports published elsewhere,’ ” recalled Hiltzik, a 40-year newspaper veteran.
But Hiltzik no longer sees the need for such restraint when calling out competing news organizations. As he sees it, the media now promote their stories more loudly, and some organizations tinge them with partisan politics.
“That’s an invitation for the gloves to come off,” he said. “If CNBC is crowing about discovering something and we know they haven’t discovered anything, we should say so.”
Mainstream news organizations’ newfound aggression in fact-checking their fellow journalists may also be a reaction to the rise of websites that offer critiques of the media’s political coverage. Sites such as the liberal Media Matters for America and the conservative Newsbusters helped carve out a new type of media analysis that’s constantly rebutting and fact-checking individual news stories, talk-show interviews, and other political-related content.
Traditional news organizations that delve into media commentary often find it’s popular with readers. Hiltzik said his blog posts about Deborah Cavallaro generated some 32,000 “likes,” far more than anything else he’s written lately, while Wemple’s two-year-old media-criticism blog at The Washington Post attracts a consistent audience.
“People care about what’s on TV,” Wemple said in a phone interview. “When you write about cable and when you write about broadcast news, you tend to get a lot of traffic and comment.” For example, Wemple’s recent debunking of reports about a Florida woman’s Obamacare woes was referenced by dozens of other sites.
Criticizing the critics, debunking the debunkers
Not surprisingly, columns and blog posts that criticize specific news stories sometimes themselves become fodder for a second round of critiques. After Hiltzik’s pointed attack of the Cavallaro coverage, Conn Carroll at the conservative website Townhall responded with his own analysis, headlined “Debunking the Debunkers.”
One of the news organizations that broadcast Cavallaro’s story also defended its work in an interview with Poynter.
“I think people like Michael Hiltzik are kind of overlooking the context,” said “Marketplace” editor George Judson, who noted that Cavallaro was one of several voices in a broader radio report about consumers who are receiving insurance-cancellation notices.
“We were simply telling people that this was going on, and here was somebody who was angry,” Judson said in a phone interview. “What we published was accurate.”
Cavallaro herself also responded to Hiltzik during her most recent interview, an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s national radio show. She praised Hiltzik for “doing a good reporting job” and confirmed that she hadn’t shopped on the Covered California exchange to see what insurance plans are available to her.
But she also brought up two issues that were omitted or glossed over in most of the media stories. She said she’s reluctant to enroll in the less expensive plans because they may not include her current doctors, and she’s avoiding the California exchange website, apparently because she’s heard news reports about privacy concerns with the federal exchange.
In that interview Cavallaro wasn’t confined to a short sound bite or two and came across as more enlightening and likely more representative of people on the individual insurance market who are struggling to navigate Obamacare’s rollout — which is indeed plagued with problems, notwithstanding the sometimes misguided media coverage.
No, Cavallaro’s not being forced to go uninsured, as some journalists trumpeted without question. But the new law may require her to make compromises as she chooses a new health plan. And she — like several of the other Americans portrayed in the media horror stories – is getting little information about her options from her insurance company or the government.
“It appeared as if [the media] decided the story was people getting kicked off their plans and being bummed out, so that’s the story they told,” said Wemple, who argues that more-nuanced reporting would be both more informative and more compelling. “The straight-up simplistic story that they told wasn’t nearly as interesting.”
Adam Hochberg is a contributor to “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.” The new book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. Find more information about the book here. Read more