Of course what we know as the “mainstream media” has a political agenda, but those who think for themselves can see right through it and discount it as they review the products of newspapers and television (although local television news tends to have less of it). Certainly it gnaws at outlets’ credibility and extends to the entire industry (large majorities now do not think they can believe most of what comes out of the media and rank them near the bottom of all industries/institutions in terms of public confidence). But sometimes it becomes so obnoxious that it makes one wonder just what kind of bubble do these journalists live in to be so oblivious to the nakedness of their narrative-building attempts.
Just such an example appeared in the New Orleans edition of the Baton Rouge Advocate. There, a story goes into how a rehired (at a salary cut of $5,000 per year) former state worker at what was the previously state-run Southeast Louisiana Hospital describes her experience there – with absolutely no independent corroboration – under new private management in the very first days of the facility’s management transition. Essentially, she claims she saw lots of chaos unhelpful to patient care, she got put into a job that was not in her primary professional field, and then she quit in disgust after just a few days. The remainder of the article deals with officials responding to the self-described events asserted by the disgruntled employee to be demonstrating declining care.
Several things about this should set off alarms concerning basic tenets of journalism I learned in my first day of journalism class and/or the first day I was on the job as a newspaper reporter. First, why is one woman being upset a story to begin with? Now, if you had a relatively large number of staff resignations, or an unusual number of patient emergencies, or many visiting families reporting significantly different conditions, or any systematic data from multiple sources showing an unmistakable change in care and in a negative direction, maybe the media ought to snoop into this. But one person subjectively upset in her workplace and this merits a story? How is this news?
OK, maybe it’s news if those things described above were happening. But does the reporter, Kari Dequin Harden, bother, or is asked by her editor, to check these things out for herself or gather other eyewitness testimony? Apparently not; all she seems to do is to ask state overseers about them in general terms. In other words, readers don’t know whether what is described actually was what was going on, or was the product of a feverish imagination from an ex-employee with an axe to grind.
And just what are this ex-worker’s qualifications to render this judgment? Does she have any special expertise that other employees, apparently none so exercised as to quit that we know of and make it a mission to tell the media, lack? And what is her motive? Is she a righteous crusader, exposing the heartless money-grubbers now shortchanging patients with the heartless Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration flacks and now-privatized flacks countenancing such inferior care because they enjoy it?
But what if she had trouble adjusting to her new job that may have made more demands on her than she was capable of handling in an atmosphere where increased efficiency was mandatory? What if she didn’t like her new supervisor? Maybe one or both of the reasons explain why she transferred quickly into a less critical area as the need for her specialty had decreased and there were other, better employees to fill those jobs? If these are the case, perhaps she’s just a deluded, if not disgruntled, employee trying to get back at some imagined sense of injury – or even being coaxed along by others with an agenda against the new order?
The point is, we don’t know the answers to these reasonable suppositions because there’s nothing in the story to tell us one way or the other. It’s all he-said/she-said with no quantifiable evidence or credible testimony to back up either side.
Which leads us to the biggest question of all: why did Harden and the Advocate even go with this story? It clearly had major holes. How did Harden or her editors even learn about it? How is its teller assumed to have so much credibility that none of this is looked into other than asking higher-ups about unproven allegations, nor is the teller’s situation there and background investigated?
You know what, after 22 years with the same state agency, I’ve got skeletons in closets I can throw open about my institution, or can point reporters to former employees who might be able to do the same. Why haven’t we been contacted about these stories? And if all you did was be a stenographer for their compilation, without making any effort to check independently on them, would you trust us so much as to go to others and get denials or explanations as to what we said we witnessed – and then run such a thin story?
Perhaps you would – if you had a larger agenda you wished to propagate for which such stories would provide excellent fodder. One can’t help but think pushing this belies precisely that from the reporter, editor, and the Advocate, perhaps something along the lines of big government good/privatization bad (even as 58 of the 60 psychiatric hospitals in the state, representing well over 80 percent of all beds available, are nongovernment), or Jindal is a meanie who makes bad policy as a result – or maybe it’s as basic as we’re in a newspaper war with what’s left of the New Orleans Times-Picayune who has invaded our turf and we’re doing the same to theirs and we need to catch eyeballs even if it means going with induced salaciousness by running stories that would have made Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst proud.
But that doesn’t serve the public that wants news told not from a viewpoint, but from dispassionate analysis that gives insight into objective conditions to give knowledge that allows for superior policy-making. Printing gossip from a source of unknown motivation doesn’t cut it, and if this is what the competition between the Advocate and Times-Picayune is all about, it’s not elevating print journalism, it’s inviting a race to the bottom.