An Oops at USA Today

Exactly what was Ben Nelson’s position?

Waiting in a train station in Bath, England, yesterday as I wondered what was happening with health reform, I spotted a copy of the international edition of USA Today dated Monday, December 21. Sure enough, there were two stories. At the bottom of page 4A was one headlined “Dem seeks stricter abortion limits in health bill.” It was an AP story, apparently from late last week, reporting that health care legislation “hung in the balance Thursday as conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson withheld his vote in pursuit of stricter abortion limits and liberals grew restive on the left.”

The end of the piece told how Nelson had given an interview to Nebraska radio station KLIN, during which he cast doubt on whether there was still time to complete work on legislation before Christmas, the informal deadline set by the Democratic leadership. He again repeated his concern about abortion and added a new worry to the mix—a Medicaid expansion, which the legislation calls for, could wind up costing the state of Nebraska money. Okay, I thought Nelson, is still on the fence.

Then, at the top of page 5A in the lead item in the Moneyline column, came news that the Senate health bill was poised for passage. Harry Reid had secured Nelson’s vote. But instead of telling readers what Reid promised Nelson in exchange, the paper larded its brief story with a quote from the president saying: “The American people will have the vote they deserve on genuine reform. We are on the cusp of making health-care reform a reality.” The rhetoric was just plain fluff.

Maybe readers like me who have been following the drama wanted to know more about Nelson, especially since the paper had just reported that the senator from Nebraska was still worried about abortion and pooh-poohing the idea that something could pass by Christmas. I was really confused until I got more information from the Daily Telegraph, whose Washington reporter revealed that in order to get Nelson’s vote, the Senate leadership agreed to exempt Nebraska from paying into a fund for Medicaid. Was the state now off the hook for expanding Medicaid to its poor residents? Was that what Nelson was after all along?

Geez, it would have been so nice if USA Today could have enlightened us on this point. Or if it didn’t have the inclination or the manpower to make all this clear, the least it could have done is make sure that its two health stories did not conflict.

I know newspapers are short-handed these days and maybe editors are in limited supply, but please take pity on the poor readers who, like me, were left scratching their heads.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.