Albion Monitor

Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron recently used a cliché that I loathe: "Newspapers are the first rough draft of history." I cringe not only because it's smug, but also because it's so plainly wrong.

Do "historical" events appear in newspapers? Sure they do. Governments rise and fall; jaw-dropping scientific discoveries are found; dramatic events happen: infamous crimes, bad weather, cultural changes, tragic wars. That's the stuff of which history is made.

Sometimes these historical events make headlines. But such happenings can also be found buried in spot news items deep inside the paper, or presented in ways that blur or conceal the story's importance.

In my last editorial I looked at presentation of the news, comparing how three newspapers covered top stories on a single day in June. Not surprisingly, each newspaper was different. Use of photographs, layout, and position in the paper varied greatly, showing that there was little consensus between the three editors on the importance -- and even some basic facts -- of each topic.

That's still defensible as a "rough draft of history." Of course they'll get parts of it wrong; events happened just hours before, and harried reporters and editors face inflexible deadlines to crunch out the story. It's even possible to excuse some amount of bias when reporting so quickly on events.

But the worst journalistic mistake -- and the kind that belies the draft-history cliché -- is when important news simply isn't reported. For readers of that newspaper, those events never happened at all.

For examples I'll turn again to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, but not to pick on this particular mid-sized newspaper. You'll undoubtedly find similar omissions in your own daily, whether it's the New York Times or the Podunk Express. The Press Democrat (and again, let's just call it the "P-D") is an interesting case, though, because it's owned by the New York Times, and -- in at least one particular case -- seemed to go out of its way to ignore certain news reports appearing in the Times until the scandal became too overwhelming.

The example involves Columbia/HCA, the nation's largest hospital chain. The corporation owns hospitals in two Sonoma County cities: Sebastopol and Healdsburg.

Perhaps also important to note: Columbia/HCA buys full page ads in the P-D (and other newspapers). These ads provide no useful information except to tout the corporation as a caring healthcare provider. Of course, the corporation pays tens of thousands of dollars for these ads.

The corporation is also in big trouble. At least five Federal agencies, including the FBI, are investigating criminal activities. Millions of dollars in Medicare fraud is alleged. Top executives have resigned, and some are facing prison. And that's just the beginning; other legal and ethical violations include pressuring doctors to buy Columbia stock, union busting, and more.

The Columbia/HCA controversy is probably the business scandal of the year -- but if you only read the P-D, it's hardly news at all. Here's a comparison of coverage over the last four months. (A dash means no article appeared on Columbia/HCA.)

DateNY Times StoryPress Democrat Story
July 31
Executives charged with Medicare fraud
(Front page)
Executives charged with Medicare fraud
(Front page)
July 27
Analysis of Columbia/HCA aquisitions
(See notes below)
July 26
2 leaders out at health giant as inquiry goes on (Front page)
Top hospital chain ousts CEO (Business)
July 25
CEO seems about to resign; stock depressed by Federal investigation
July 22
Criminal investigations focus on 1994 transactions
July 18
Inquiry is said to produce evidence of fraud
July 17
Wide raids made on hospital chain (Front page)
Search warrants at Columbia/HCA
(Small "In Brief" item, E6)
July 14
Full page ads for Columbia/HCA in both newspapers
May 11
Opponents rally to stop the march of Columbia/HCA (Business page feature)
May 4
Hospital mega-giant stirs bitter debate
(See notes below)
May 1
Columbia/HCA does well -- profit up 15 percent
April 6
Columbia pressuring doctors to buy stock (special report)
April 2
Judge says Columbia violated law with anti-union rules
April 1
FBI investigating Columbia in Ohio
March 28
Biggest hospital operator attracts Federal inquiries (Front page special report)
March 21
FBI, IRS, Health Dept searching Columbia offices in Texas

Before continuing, I want to be clear: to the best of my knowledge, this list contains every article on Columbia/HCA that's appeared in the P-D since the end of March. If any were omitted, it was accidental -- and also probably means the article was too small to easily notice.

Also, this does not list all the New York Times articles. They have produced about two dozen stories recently, some of them quite lengthy. (A special index to these articles can be found at the Times' web site.)

Now read those columns vertically, comparing the depth of the Times' reports with the paucity of P-D coverage. If you only see the Santa Rosa paper, the scandal bursts suddenly at the end of July. Also, the nature of the story is completely different; gone is the pattern of systematic wrongdoing by the corporation outlined in the Times, the hatred of Columbia/HCA by communities, hospitals targeted for aquisition, physicians and nurses. In the P-D presentation, it seems like a run-of-the-mill scandal involving a couple of bad eggs in the company. Nope, nothing wrong with Columbia/HCA itself.

Another curious thing; although the P-D is owned by the Times, it printed only one piece from its parent, instead using wire service stories. Why? Could it be because those Associated Press stories were less critical of the corporation?

The P-D's only background piece on Columbia appeared on May 4, and this AP reprint hardly touches the controversies that were exploding at the time. It opened: "Beth Marshall doesn't know much about Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. except that her 3-pound, premature son is being cared for by doctors and nurses at one of its 343 hospitals..." Although the FBI raids were given only a single sentence, the article wastes a paragraph on founder Richard Scott, noting his hometown, ranking as one of Time Magazine's 25 most influencial Americans, and humble origins as a doughnut shop owner.

The single Times reprint appeared on July 27 -- a short analysis by Allen R. Myerson. But curiously, the P-D cut nearly half the article, dropped a graphic showing how Columbia has wiped out most of its competitors, and added a local angle paragraph. The changes are interesting.

Added was a paragaph that Columbia employs almost 600 people in Sonoma County (making it one of the largest employers). Dropped were several paragraphs describing hospital fraud. One described that the Humana chain -- bought out by Columbia several years ago -- was charging $7 for a Tylenol and making a 400 percent profit on surgery. Also gone was mention that charity hospitals can perform operations at one-third the cost, and with healthier outcomes.

Perhaps most interesting was the deletion of the author's conclusion. Columbia/HCA has to continue buying hospitals at rock-bottom prices to maintain profit margins and keep stockholders happy. Like a pyramid scheme, their money's made only by constantly expanding. Press Democrat readers didn't see this shocking observation.

The P-D's coverage stinks of censorship, and I have the feeling that the Press Democrat is protecting Columbia/HCA. But why? Does the hospital chain have that much influence because of its costly ads? Is there a financial or personal conflict of interest within the editorial staff?

Press Democrat readers should demand answers to these troubling questions. Write them at Is their allegiance to the readers or their corporate advertiser? You have the right to know.

I can't imagine that the Press Democrat just happened to overlook such a prominent story. It was clear by spring that the Times' series was remarkable, and because of the P-D's curious silence, the Monitor published a background article on Columbia/HCA.

We've also covered other HMO and hospital scandals, including misdoings by the Sutter chain, which now owns Community Hospital in Sonoma County. Like the charges against Columbia, Sutter is accused of Medicare scams, particularly in nursing homes.

I promise that the Medicare scandals are just beginning. In 1995, we provided another report on nursing home fraud, this time finding that adult diapers, which are not covered by Medicare, being improperly billed as expensive prosthetic devices called "female external urinary collection devices." And also that year, we provided unique coverage of the Medicare debate in Congress, with excerpts from the Congressional Record, edited for better presentation.

None of those stories received a fragment of the attention now given to the Columbia/HCA exposé, but only the Monitor has provided articles that give the current scandal its context, showing that it's corporations, not "welfare cheats," who are routinely stealing public money from Medicare. If you want to see more investigative stories on this topic, we hope you'll learn how to subscribe to the Monitor; it's only $9.95 per year if you're outside Sonoma County, and free to anyone with a account.

The more I think about the Press Democrat's censorious coverage of Columbia/HCA, the more that quote, "Newspapers are the first rough draft of history," chafes my hide.

I worry that the P-D might be deliberately skirting bad news about Columbia out of fear of offending a major advertiser. If that's the case, perhaps a more honest quote for the P-D to embrace would be, "This space for rent." Or perhaps, "Only winners write the history books" -- because they're certainly helping this rich, powerful corporation towards its obscene goal of controlling healthcare in America.

-- Jeff Elliott, Editor

Albion Monitor issue 33 (

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