Dart to CNN

Who’s fact checking whom?

Anyone listening to CNN Wednesday morning might have been scared to death. The specter of the government coming between doctor and patient raised its head again, as it has over the years when the special interests want to demonize health reform. The offending segment began with anchor Heidi Collins raising the ghost of health reforms past:

The president’s economic package throws billions of dollars at health reform. Critics say there are provisions in the fine print that will let doctors dictate the kind of medical care your doctor gives. Actually I think that should say the government dictate what your doctor can do for you. Because a lot of people, I would imagine, would have serious issue with the government who are not physicians usually.

Collins then introduced senior health correspondent Elizabeth Cohen, whom she said was here for a fact check. Cohen took it from there, and she and Collins created a piece of bad journalism that ranks among the most irresponsible health stories I’ve seen over the past year. They built their story around the latest opinions from Betsy McCaughey, who was “baack” opining on the stimulus package for Bloomberg.com, using the same old scare tactics about the government ruining patients’ health care. Cohen quoted McCaughey’s assertion that “the stimulus bill will monitor treatments to make sure your doctor is doing what the federal government deems appropriate and cost effective.”

“Definitely sounds like something you don’t want,” Cohen told viewers.

CNN identified McCaughey as a Republican and former New York lieutenant governor, but it left out her health care credentials, which audiences might have been interested in hearing. While at the conservative Manhattan Institute during the debate on the Clinton health plan, she penned two influential stories for The New Republic—“No Exit” and “She’s Baack!”—that helped bring down the Clinton plan. She received a National Magazine Award for her work, but The New Republic later disavowed it and apologized. Andrew Sullivan, who was editor at the time, said he knew her stories had flaws, but he wanted to provoke debate.

CNN tried to “fact check” McCaughey’s claims by asking to see the provision that says the government was going to tell doctors what to do. Cohen reported that, while the bill didn’t actually say that, McCaughey claimed its language was vague enough to allow for such government meddling in the future. CNN asked “the folks who wrote this bill” if the language would do that, and they told Cohen that was “completely and wildly untrue.”

CNN should have left it there. As Campaign Desk reported, the comparative effectiveness provision in the House version of the bill, which survived in the final package, would fund government research that looks at the costs and benefits of various health treatments and tests—something health experts say must happen if the U.S. is ever to control medical spending. But instead, anchor Collins weighed in, giving her own opinions on health reform:

Completely and wildly untrue. All right. Well, it is interesting, because there are people out there who say if [it] makes way for that, then it can be moving towards things like national health care. So, you know, I think that is a concern.

Cohen agreed, saying that “the language is vague enough that that can happen. That is a concern.” It would have helped to know just who is concerned about this—think tanks that oppose reform on behalf of their funders, businesses whose profits might be lower, editors at CNN, or its reporting team that didn’t seem to know what it was talking about. Collins pressed further:

So because of this vague language, is it true that there is a chance then that doctors can be told by the government specifically about drugs and therapies and treatments for their patients?

“I suppose there is a chance for anything,” Cohen said, adding “some would say that it’s written in such a vague way that they’re paving the road for that. Will that happen? Who knows?”

Collins said that they would stay on top of the story. We hope CNN does, but here are a few suggestions for better journalism:

• It helps to completely identify those people who are making claims about health care—their backgrounds, their affiliations, and other such factors.

• Reporters and anchors should do their homework and refrain from passing on messages of groups with interests in reform one way or another, without further explanation of where these messages are coming from and why.

• Context is super important. Managed care plans run by insurance companies have been coming between patients and their doctors for years, dictating which drugs and treatments they will pay for and which ones they won’t, based on their own research into costs and benefits plus their own profit goals. Government research and recommendations presumably would be more neutral and free from any profit motives.

That point was driven home to me the same day the CNN segment aired. I saw my eye doctor pleading with an insurer to let one of his patients have a brand name glaucoma medication. She was allergic to the lower cost drugs they were insisting on. Shaking his head, he said: “This happens all the time.”

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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.