Hillary’s Bad Facts

How should the press handle a health care stumble?

For the last few weeks Hillary Clinton has been telling a health care horror story that deeply touched her and those who listened. It was about a woman named Trina Bachtel who lost her life and her baby son after a hospital in Athens, Ohio, supposedly denied her treatment because she could not pay the $100 fee that the hospital demanded. As the tale unfolded, the woman was turned away twice, only to return days later with severe complications and she died after she was rushed to a hospital in Columbus for specialized treatment. Trouble is, the story didn’t hold up.

Clinton heard it from Bryan Holman, the Meigs County, Ohio, deputy sheriff, who mentioned the incident during a campaign stop at his home before the Ohio primary. Holman told The New York Times that he had heard the story from Ms. Bachtel’s relatives. He told The Washington Post that Bachtel’s plight was a “really terrible story,” and he was grateful Clinton had taken it to heart, adding, “That is what we wanted.”

Clinton’s campaign should have heeded the lesson that most of us journalists learn early—that stories need to be double and triple checked. This is particularly true when the story involves health problems. As every cub reporter should know, you certainly always check with the presumed bad guy—the doctor, the hospital, the employer, the insurance company—to see if the story holds up. Sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s what happened to Clinton. A deputy sheriff is hardly a fact-checker-in-chief, yet the campaign didn’t call the hospital to hear its side. On Friday the hospital, O’Bleness Memorial, challenged the story, saying that Ms. Bachtel had never been turned away, was in fact being cared for by an obstetrical practice affiliated with the hospital, and had insurance. It demanded that the Clinton campaign stop using the story, which it has. Clinton spokesman Mo Ellithee said that candidates tried to vet stories when possible and offered this lame explanation—“in this case, we did try but were not able to fully vet it.”

On Saturday (Friday for the Web version) the Times devoted twenty-four inches to setting the record straight. That evening ABC’s World News Tonight picked up the story. What happens when the story doesn’t add up? asked ABC correspondent John Hendren. After reporting that the hospital had contradicted Clinton’s story, Hendren added his own interpretation of why Clinton had told the story so often. The lesson she was hoping to draw, he said, was that universal health care would have saved Bachtel’s life, and telling it subtly argues that she offers the only plan for universal health care.

News outlets might run such candidate stories past their own truth squads, just as they sometimes do with political ads, and get ahead of the game. But it’s too bad Hendren didn’t give a better answer to his question. For every story that seems far-fetched or flat-out wrong, there are hundreds of others that are right and legitimate and add up to a compelling picture of why American health care has serious problems that must be addressed. It’s easy for news outlets to chortle about Clinton fibbing (see Bosnia, sniper fire) after the fact. But beyond candidate stumbles, we would like to see news outlets find the real health care stories and problems that are out there—there are so many—and then ask a better question: How would each candidate’s plan change the stories?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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.