Chatting after the piece, the reporter, Romans, fatefully, adds this non-scripted bit:

“It’s interesting because the woman in our piece (Cosman) told us that there were 900 cases for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.”

That is an accurate quote from an inaccurate study. Indeed, with all respect to the late Dr. Cosman, medical lawyer, whatever that is, her study is doo doo. The paragraph is here:

Leprosy, a scourge of Biblical days and Medieval Europe so horribly destroys flesh and faces it was called the disease of the soul. (70) Lepers quarantined in leprosaria sounded noisemakers when they ventured out to warn people to stay far away. Leprosy, Hansen’s disease, was so rare in America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. (71, 72) Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases. Leprosy is now endemic to northeastern states because illegal aliens and immigrants brought leprosy from India, Brazil, the Caribbean and Mexico.(53, 73, 74)

Forget footnotes 53, 73, and 74. The 7,000-new-cases-in-three-years figure is wrong. Government numbers are available from the National Hansen’s Disease Programs, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are 6,500 cases total. The peak was 1985, at 450 new cases. In 2005, there were 166 new cases, thirty-one more than the year before. In the three most recent years of data, 2003-2005, there were 431 new cases.

(Also, by the way, leprosy is not “now endemic” to the northeast, either, as Cosman says, so we Brooklynites can relax.)

Okay, one could say, accurately, that leprosy has more than doubled in the U.S. since 2000 (from seventy-six new cases to 166). Then again, one could say it has fallen 63 percent since 1985. Or one could say nothing at all, which is really what you should say. No leprosy story here.

Nothing happens until three weeks ago, May 6, when 60 Minutes does a profile of Dobbs. Lesley Stahl asks about the bogus 7,000-new-lepers figure.

STAHL: (Voiceover) We checked that and found a report issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, saying: “Seven thousand is the number of leprosy cases over the last 30 years,” not the past three, and nobody knows how many of those cases involved illegal immigrants. Now we went to try and check that number, 7,000. We can’t. Just so you know…

DOBBS: Well, I can tell you this. If we reported it, it’s a fact.

STAHL: You can’t tell me that. You did report it.

DOBBS: Well, no, I just did.

STAHL: How can you guarantee that to me?

DOBBS: Because I’m the managing editor, and that’s the way we do business. We don’t make up numbers, Lesley. Do we?

Cut to an advocate, Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, disputing the figure and offering the accurate one, which I’ll get to in due course.

The next day, May 7, Dobbs and Romans, the reporter, review the matter, and she accurately reads the wrong fact again:

DOBBS: And there was a question about some of your comments, Christine. Following one of your reports, I told Lesley Stahl, we don’t make up numbers, and I will tell everybody here again tonight, I stand 100 percent behind what you said.

ROMANS: That’s right, Lou. We don’t make up numbers here. This is what we reported.
We reported, “It’s interesting, because the woman in our piece told us that there were about 900 cases of leprosy for 40 years. There have been 7,000 in the past three years. Leprosy in this country.” I was quoting Dr. Madeline Cosman, a respected medical lawyer and medical historian writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons.

She said, “Hansen’s disease”—that’s the other modern name, I guess, for leprosy—“Hansen’s disease was so rare in the America that in 40 years only 900 people were afflicted. Suddenly, in the past three years, America has more than 7,000 cases of leprosy”—Lou.

If you want to unwind Cosman’s wrong report, you can read the whole thing on the SPLC’s Web site.

Let’s pause for a second to say, if Lesley Stahl tells me on camera that I got a fact wrong in a Wall Street Journal or Washington Post story from a couple years before, I would say, “Lesley, I never liked you, and that haircut does nothing for you. What is more, I am sure you are wrong, but I will check.”

Who remembers facts and sourcing from two years before? All you can do is hope you were careful, and go find out. Why is this complicated?

When did reporters—even “managing editors” [1]—decide we had to be Jesus Christ?

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.