Ross Rambles: Reporting negative news

Thursday, June 14, 2007

I take allegations of biased reporting seriously. After hearing such an allegation recently, I remain confident that my reporting is fair and objective.

I talked at length on the phone to a person who objected to my article of May 30, headlined - "Dr. Gary removed from Board of Health." There was a subhead (a secondary headline in less bold print) stating -- "Federal fraud investigator contacted."

The article referred to actions taken by the Cherokee County Board of Supervisors at two meetings. At one meeting, the supervisors approved a letter of termination for Dr. Gary, who, for many years, chaired the Cherokee County Board of Health, a board of volunteers appointed by the supervisors. The supervisors cited many concerns, including the sale of the county's Medicare identification number for $1 to Careage Management. The letter from the supervisors was printed under a separate headline in the May 30 edition.

At the second meeting, the supervisors had a conference call with Robert Eps, a Medicare fraud investigator for a multi-state region, operating out of Kansas City, Mo. Eps explained that the entity that possesses the Medicare number receives payment for whatever services are provided under that account. Eps said that an appointed county official would not have the authority to sell a federal identification number.

Eps said he would report the matter to the inspector general's office, which is also located in Kansas City.

(Since the conversation with the critic of my reporting, the inspector general's office announced that it is dropping the investigation - reported in the June 7 Chronicle Times. There had not yet been any attempted use of the county's number by any other entity, so no fraud took place.)

I believe that the known facts were accurately presented in the May 30 edition, they were of enough significance to warrant a front-page article and they were well summarized in the headline and sub-head.

An unfortunate omission was the absence of any statement by Gary, but as noted in the May 30 article, Dr. Gary was on vacation out of state and could not be reached. No newspaper will hold off on an article about an official being removed from office until the person returns from vacation. Regardless of any objection Gary would have expressed regarding the actions or allegations of the supervisors, the fact that he was removed would have remained factual and the most newsworthy matter in that article.

If Gary wants to say something in his defense, directly to the newspaper or to the supervisors, that will be reported. I have quoted Gary in his criticism of the board of supervisors and his criticism of the newspaper.

My critic noted that the May 30 article contained no statement from any board of health member. No board of health member made any statement at either of the reported supervisor meetings. I don't remember any being present at either meeting but I'm not sure of that. There was no evidence that the board of health acted on, or even had prior knowledge of, the sale of the Medicare number by Gary. It just didn't seem appropriate to invite anybody but Gary to comment on actions and allegations against Gary.

My critic believed the May 30 article was part of a pattern of anti-Gary reporting dating back to the start of the year. I would have been willing to discuss details of any specific article regarding an ongoing controversy, at least in the articles I personally wrote, but I didn't want to get into a slippery discussion over vague concepts of intent and tone.

I was annoyed when my critic pointed out that, contrary to what my article indicated, Gary was not attempting to get rich by selling Medicare numbers and wasn't going to jail for his actions. My article made no such assertions and it seems ironic that someone critical of how I presented facts would misrepresent what I wrote.

What I wrote was precisely what happened. Whether a person agrees with the actions and conclusions of the supervisors, they did remove Gary from his position and did refer the matter to a federal fraud investigator. There is no way to present those facts in an upbeat and positive way.

In the past, I have heard people take the position that the newspaper should not report negative news.

(Please note that I'm shifting to a related but different topic. I'm walking on eggshells to avoid having my intent misinterpreted. The idea of not reporting bad news was not a position taken by my critic during the recent conversation and my references in the next paragraph to police reports and court reports do not have anything to do with Dr. Gary.)

I disagree with the position that a newspaper should avoid printing any bad news such as a public official being criticized or even police reports of an arrest or court reports of a sentencing. In a society in which there is no source of information more accountable than gossip, every traffic stop becomes an OWI and every visit by law enforcement to a residence becomes a drug raid.

There are judgment calls to be made regarding whether a particular item of bad news needs to appear in the newspaper. (Here is another topic shift).

An example of a borderline case on what does or doesn't need to be reported involved a May 29 Cherokee City Council meeting I reported on in the May 31 Chronicle Times.

A group of volunteers from a Cherokee beautification organization had mistakenly cut down some small trees in Spring Lake Park during a brush clearing and general clean-up session. The matter was of little importance and could have passed unnoticed. However, council member Mick Mallory submitted a letter to the editor published in the May 25 Chronicle Times inviting whoever was responsible to come to a council meeting to explain that action.

Council member Greg Stieneke wrote a letter to the editor appearing in the May 30 Chronicle Times pointing out that the action referred to was an honest mistake made by well-intentioned volunteers.

Two members of the beautification organization came to the council meeting, explained the mistake and apologized. Others at the meeting, both from the organization and others not from the organization, had some harsh words for Mallory, indicating that such criticism toward hard-working volunteers could result in fewer volunteers to do vitally needed projects.

Mallory said that he didn't know the reason the trees were cut and simply wanted an explanation. "Anybody can make a mistake. It isn't the end of the world," Mallory said.

Just because there is a heated exchange at a meeting of a public body doesn't mean that the discussion is newsworthy. Still, many people aware that several people spoke on an issue at the city council would regard it as negligent on our part not to report on that exchange.

There was no clear answer, even in my own mind, whether or not this matter needed to be reported. I decided to report the matter in detail but it was at the end of the city council article, after a report on another matter.

Although I believe Mallory made a mistake on how he handled the situation, I had sympathy for him as he endured a barrage of criticism for questioning the actions of a group of well-meaning and hard-working volunteers. I had trampled on that sacred ground myself.

In August 2003, I wrote a Ross Rambles about the attempt to create an area of native prairie plants on the northwest corner of the intersection of Bluff Street and North Second Street. I explained that a series of mistakes (I insensitively referred to them as 'blunders') had resulted in a profusion of weeds in the plot and the subsequent mowing of the plot.

Two lengthy letters to the editor took me to task for my negativity toward the volunteers who performed vital work for the community.

I believe there is a difference between the matter Mallory pointed out and the one that I did. Perhaps the cutting down of a few small trees at Spring Lake Park could have passed without public notice but it would be more difficult to disregard a profusion of unsightly weeds during an extended period of time at one of the busiest intersections in Cherokee.

I can picture a family driving past the patch, with the children asking the parents what is going on.

"Don't look at that! Pretend you don't see it!" the father commands the children.

"And for heaven's sake, don't ask any questions about it," the mother adds, " You don't want to destroy the reputations of well-intentioned and hard-working volunteers!"

Nobody's reputation was being destroyed. Whether talking about an official accused of exceeding his authority or volunteers making simple mistakes, the accusation becomes more ominous when the only information about the matter is relayed in the hushed tones of a shameful secret.