The Strib: fair and balanced, or crazy like a Fox?

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The Strib: fair and balanced, or crazy like a Fox?

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The story that ceased to be

Regular visitors to startribune.com may have noticed an abrupt about-face in the paper's January 31 story about Mike Hatch's four-volume report on the non-profit Fairview Health Systems. The report, which offered a scathing portrait of Fairview's debt-collection and executive compensation practices, was covered in fairly blunt terms by media all over the state. The treatment at KSTP-TV's website typified the tone of the early dispatches: "Bonuses for Bosses at Fairview, But No Help for Poor Patients, Hatch Reports." The Strib's first web post of its story sounded a similar refrain: "While execs got bonuses, Fairview's low-income patients got bill."

 

That headline was still showing up in the Google news cache as of this writing, but the story you found by clicking on it had been considerably repackaged even before it hit the Strib's print edition on February 1. That version, still posted online, is titled "Fairview Hasn't Done Enough, Hatch Says." Reporter Glenn Howatt's lede is a veritable compendium of euphemisms and softball qualifiers: "Although it has taken steps to curb executive pay and perks, one of Minnesota's leading hospital operators has not done enough to make sure that the neediest patients get financial help, the state Attorney General charged Monday."

 

The story went on to recount the same damning allegations as all the other wire accounts. So what difference does this little disappearing act make? Two things. First, media studies show that many if not most readers--sorry, news consumers--absorb only the packaging and lede of many stories in their daily papers. So spinning the headline and lede 180 degrees is a move of some consequence where public impressions are concerned. Second, why did the Strib blink on its harsher (and more accurate) initial treatment? The seemingly obvious question is, who at Fairview or the Strib barked about the first version?

 

Howatt says flatly that the answer is no one. We phoned the longtime health care beat reporter to ask after the markedly different before-and-after versions of his story. "Nobody expressed any dissatisfaction," he said. "I gathered more information and more reactions. We're in a different world here. We write for the web a lot more now. We have more time to write the pieces that appear in the paper. We strived for fairness, balance, and accuracy in both stories. If you want to say I was soft on Fairview, you can say I was soft on Fairview."

 

Okay, we will. And if it's true that no one from Fairview applied the screws to editors or ad managers at the Strib, it sure was nice of your paper to publish David Phelps's Business section page-one last Sunday about the notorious grandstander Mike Hatch and his efforts to besmirch Fairview CEO David Page. 

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