A failure to ‘ask the questions’

Why didn't NBC, Fox News or CBS 2 examine Deborah Cavallaro's insurance cancellation story before they aired it--like the LA Times did?

Deborah Cavallaro, a real estate agent in suburban Los Angeles, sure became a minor media celeb last week. Cavallaro, a 60-year-old blonde, emerged as a face of a story to which reporters came inexcusably late: Some people in the individual insurance market are receiving cancellation letters from their insurance providers, along with offers to buy often pricier Obamacare-compliant policies. Cavallaro has been on the media circuit telling her story with well-polished phrases, convincing outrage, and pithy sound bites tailor-made for the broadcast news. Why, she almost sounded media-trained.

Last Tuesday, she showed up on NBC Nightly News to illustrate the story of the week: the president’s broken promise that “if you like your [health] plan, you can keep it.” Cavallaro recently got a cancellation notice from her insurer since her policy didn’t comply with the new benefit standards called for by the Affordable Care Act.

“All I want is what I currently have. I want to keep my doctors and I would like to have lower premiums,” she said on camera. It seems she’d have to pay her insurer nearly $200 more for a new plan with possibly better coverage. It also seems she represents what can happen when journalists don’t do their own digging. Much more on that to come.

NBC made good use of Cavallaro’s tale last week. She appeared on MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown on Tuesday morning, where the network’s White House correspondent Chuck Todd announced, “We’re hearing from people who buy their insurance on the individual market like self-employed realtor Deborah Cavallaro who recently got a notice from her insurers saying her policy will no longer be offered because of the new requirements in the law.” In a lengthy segment Wednesday on CNBC’s Morning Bell with Maria Bartiromo, Cavallaro had a lot to say (emphasis mine):

I really wish that he [the president] would stop repeating the same thing, which is, the plans that 19 million of us approximately have are inferior substandard plans. Please explain to me how my plan is a substandard plan, when in fact, I can go to any doctor that I want. I can go to any hospital that I want. The premium is lower than the premiums of several of the plans I have already looked at that are approved. I’d be paying more for the exchange plans than I am currently paying by a wide margin, as I mentioned the other day, 65 percent, and I can’t go to the doctors want.

So where was Cavallaro “the other day?” A week earlier, on October 21, she appeared on CBS Channel 2 in Los Angeles presenting her tale. “I was infuriated, totally infuriated [to receive the cancellation letter from her insurer],” she said. “It’s sort of like forcing you to walk the plank.” At the end of the segment, CBS’s Randy Paige noted that Cavallaro says her “only option is to be forced into a plan she doesn’t want and can’t afford.” Cavallaro reinforced the point for viewers: “Stop the madness. Stop Killing us, because you are killing us.”

Two days later, on October 23, she appeared on Marketplace. Same story; Different words. On air she called the cancellations an “outrage—absolutely outrage,” adding “my complaint with the president and the administration is that they are simply not telling the whole truth.” In wrapping up the Marketplace segment reporter Sara Gardner gave a more nuanced view of Cavallaro’s predicament, reporting that Cavallaro can “comparison shop in the new state health exchanges.” Gardner noted Cavallaro “hasn’t investigated that yet.” I wonder why Gardner didn’t “investigate that”—or NBC or CNBC, for that matter?

Then last Tuesday, the day Cavallaro appeared on NBC Nightly News, she also showed up on Fox News’ Your World With Neil Cavuto where she announced her plight was “the same thing we’ve been hearing from a lot of people.” Her insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, had a plan for her that was similar to the one it was cancelling, which “would cost me 65 percent more per month than I would be paying. ” What’s more, she said the carrier couldn’t tell her much about whether her doctors would be covered or her drugs covered on the new plan’s formulary, but advised they were going to make changes. “Amazing,” said Cavuto.

On Thursday, LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik offered a mini-expose of sorts, “debunk[ing]” Cavallaro’s “Obamacare horror story,” which, he explained, was “the product of her own misunderstandings, abetted by a passel of uninformed and incurious news reporters.”

Hiltzik told me that he asked Cavallaro if she had shopped the insurance exchange, and Cavallaro said she’d contacted a broker who had shopped for her (she did mention the exchanges on CNBC, asserting “I’d be paying more for the exchange plans than I am currently paying by a wide margin.”) Apparently, the broker didn’t do a very good job of it. Because Hiltzik did a little shopping around on California’s health plan exchange—independent reporting!—and found Cavallaro was eligible for a subsidy of $200 a month, which would help give her affordable options after all, and concluded that Obamacare actually gives her “vastly more affordable” coverage than she has now. The Obamacare PR shop was so pleased with Hiltzik’s story, it sent around a press release touting the findings of Hiltzik’s shopping trip. Why didn’t reporters, other than Hiltzik, check out Cavallaro’s story—independently confirm whether her “only” options were indeed pricier than her current plan—before they spread it far and wide?

Cavallaro, appearing Friday on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, told Hewitt (who asked if she felt used by the LA Times’ Hiltzik) that “in all fairness to Michael Hiltizk…he was doing a good reporting job, because he did ask the questions. And Michael, if you’re listening, I mean, I think you did ask the questions that nobody else asked.” Why didn’t any other reporters ask? (Cavallaro went on to tell Hewitt that even if she may not be paying more under Obamacare, it’s actually the “shrunken network” of doctors she’s worried about—a topic I’ve suggested reporters explore—and they have).

Hiltzik concluded in his piece that Cavallaro “has been very poorly served by the health insurance industry and the news media,” reporting that maybe Anthem didn’t properly explain her options. I raised that problem when I told the story of a Pennsylvania woman who was not advised by Aetna in its cancellation letter last summer that she might be eligible for a subsidy. In the American Prospect, Paul Waldman asserted “there’s something fishy going on here, not just from the reporters, but from the insurance companies.” But that’s another story. This post is about the media, and Cavallaro’s appearances on so many news shows suggest either that someone or some organization offered up her story or that journos lazily cribbed from each other in their effort to personalize their Obamacare “horror story” segments. (I tried to reach Cavallaro to ask how her local CBS station—her first media appearance on this topic, as far as I can tell—found her. She has not returned my calls.) More importantly, regardless of how reporters connected with Cavallaro, too many of them failed to independently investigate her statements.

Generally, I’m a big fan of trying to put a human face on a complex problem. But reporters playing the anecdote game would do well to consider Alex Koppelman’s recent New Yorker piece, “Why Obamacare Might Help the Man on Fox.” Koppelman reported on a couple with two sons in the market for new insurance. They seem like the perfect couple for a story about the Affordable Care Act—except they aren’t. The dad was a lobbyist for the Association of Mature Americans, a conservative alternative to the AARP (liberal groups, too, have “ordinary people” they can tap as anecdotes to buttress their side of the story when a reporter calls.). Koppelman noted that Fox News reporter Jim Angle, in his story featuring the couple, “does not appear to have ever disclosed” the dad’s work to viewers.

On November 3, The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn wrote about another “poster child for the Obamacare cancellation story” whose story, upon closer examination, “defies quick and easy description” (ahem, CBS News and Fox News, and, we’d add, NBC and Marketplace). The bottom line is (and it’s so simple, so fundamental, it almost sounds ridiculous): reporters need to vet people and their claims carefully before showcasing them. Anything less is indefensibly poor journalism.

Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team.

Related content:

Reviewing Obamacare coverage: Week 1

Too little, too late on ‘You can keep it’

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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. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,