The Times’ Skewed Reporting on King/Drew

I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed reading a series of articles in the L.A. Times as this week’s Pulitzer-class five-parter on the horrors of King/Drew hospital. As early as midnight, I start peeking at the Times’ Web site, hoping that the next morning’s installment will already be posted. As soon as the piece goes up, I devour it, and e-mail it around to as many of my out-of-town friends as possible. A far cry from the usual task of dutifully chomping on the insipid journalism more frequently dished out by the Times.

The detailed documentation of the hospital as a "Killer King" that squanders its generous budget, lets its incompetent staff run rampant, tolerates massive workers’-comp fraud, coddles its overpaid and corrupt administrators, and subjects its patients (or should we say victims) to truly barbaric levels of malpractice and often lethal neglect, while all the time hiding from public scrutiny behind a cowardly defense of racial politics, is absolutely thorough and airtight. Not to mention hair-raising and infuriating. Reading of a small Guatemalan girl who is brought in for routine and minor care and who is wheeled out days later in a body bag after a series of botched procedures, or reading about a lead pathologist who for years is allowed to misdiagnose one case of cancer after another, staggers the imagination.

It’s not just the superb reporting by the Times team, not just the elevated craft, however, that so impresses. It’s also the art of the writing being turned in by Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and the other members of the series team. (No, I haven’t become a paid flack for the Times — keep reading.) The King/Drew series brazenly breaks the Times’ standard rules of "objectivity," and thank God for that small favor. It’s painfully obvious that the reporters on this series — and apparently the editors — have very strong opinions about Killer King; they clearly think the place sucks. And the stories they have published deliciously reek with those salty perspectives, as they damn well should. How could anyone with an open eye and an open heart spend a full year documenting the daily abuses committed in the corridors of the county-run butchery and not emerge outraged?

The beautiful aspect of the Times’ series is that every pointed assertion, every contemptuous observation made by the writers, is fully supported by the hard-as-rock bed of facts and figures on which the narrative rests. The L.A. Times team has written a searing, unflinching and unequivocal indictment of a morally criminal operation bereft of any apologies or doubts.

Wonderfully absent from this reporting is the boilerplate Yes/But "blazing straddle" mealy-mouthed newspaperese that lamely tries to inject "balance" into what is, in reality, a very skewed (and, in this case, screwed up) situation. In other words, by going over the line, by eschewing the routine approach of equaling out every negative assertion with some positive quote from someone else, by rudely shredding the rule book on forced objectivity, the Times has given us — in the King/Drew story — not a biased or unfair view, but instead an infinitely more honest one. The reporters investigated. They found horror. They vividly reported it. Full stop.

Objectivity should be a process, a fair-minded and open inquiry. It should never be just an artificially manufactured outcome, i.e., that so-called perfectly balanced story. ("The 17-year rule of General Pinochet was marked not only by human-rights abuses and some cases of torture but also by great strides toward laying a future democratic groundwork . . .).

Now here comes the turn I promised you. Unfortunately, the courage displayed by the Times in the Killer King story is the exception, not the rule. For the most part, the dreary rote convention of writing all stories right up the middle, what press critic Jay Rosen calls the "broken contraption" of modern American journalism, still prevails. It was just last year that Times editor in chief John Carroll publicly excoriated one of the paper’s most talented writers while vowing he would purge the paper of all bias — though he only mentioned the liberal variety. "We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times," Carroll wrote in a widely circulated memo.

I agree that the Times should have no such agenda. It should plainly report the truth — wherever it leads. But what about a story whose central truth happens to overlap a "liberal agenda"? What then? Should the Times then "balance out" the story with conservative add-ons? That was certainly Carroll’s advice in the case that prompted last year’s memo.

When Scott Gold reported the incontrovertible truth that there is, indeed, no credible scientific link between abortion and breast cancer — a truth that coincides with liberal views — Carroll then went on to write that he wondered "if there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it" so Gold could quote him and thereby appease conservative critics and readers (and probably more than a few editors).

Yikes! Fortunately, no one at the Times has made the King/Drew team dredge up some quacks who would go on the record to give "the other side" of the county-financed carnage that passes for medical care. On the contrary, the Times’ stories come down pretty hard on the defenders of the hospital, going so far as to reveal (it’s about time) that those who claim to speak in protest for the African-American community around the facility are but a small, aging group of zealots more interested in identity politics than in healing the sick. Another exemplary case of honest reporters callin’ ’em as they see ’em, rather than daintily tiptoeing around uncomfortable realities.

Now, if the Times would only apply the same courage and standards in reporting on the White House, that other house of horrors. Is it too much to hope for?

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