Health at the Tribune: 1.Beck’s Bad Ploy

The Tribune’s lodestar whenever it ponders public policy is its faith in the gluttonous inefficiency of big government. It’s a sturdy faith that’s led the Tribune to question the health-care schemes of the Clinton administration every step of the way.

A ripe example of institutional skepticism was the op-ed page of March 24. “Promise the voters everything, and count on being back in Little Rock before they find out you lied,” wrote Stephen Chapman, questioning costs. Joan Beck warned, “It’s the Clintons who are determined to expand the role of government in our lives by their plans for massive changes in health care.”

Sometimes a lodestar’s gleam, like the gleam in the eye of the ranting stranger who sits down next to you in an empty bus, is disconcerting. Beck mentioned health care in passing. Her real purpose in grabbing our sleeve was to rail against the income tax. She put a strange new spin on Whitewater by presenting it as chickens coming home to roost.

The Clintons’ old tax returns have come into question, Beck wrote, but fair enough: “Maybe the moral is that they deserve some IRS flak to remind them how much the government now intrudes on the lives of people who are supposed to be free. What happened to innocent until proven guilty, when the IRS can treat us as guilty unless we can prove otherwise?”

This is an old lament. It arises from the totalitarian situation in which we all get to tell the IRS each year what we owe and once in a while the IRS makes us prove it.

Beck went on, “Where is the right of privacy when the IRS demands to know how much used clothing we give to a church rummage sale and how big our mortgage payments are and how much our safety deposit box costs? What business is it of the government what Bill Clinton did with his old underwear?”

We anxiously scoured our 1040s and Schedule As and Form 2106s trying to locate where the IRS demands any of these things. If the IRS actually requires documentation of how we’ve disposed of our BVDs over the years, all is lost.

Fortunately, the IRS is less interested in our skivvies than Beck makes out. Possibly what she meant to say is that it’s not fair to make her itemize any deductions at all, when what she deserves is a no-questions-asked good-citizen discount. For her we suggest Form 1040A.

“Why have the politicians–including the Clintons–allowed this country’s tax structure to grow so complicated that at least half of us–including that pair of bright Yale Law School graduates–can no longer do our own tax returns and have to pay preparers to do them?” Beck wonders.

She asks a legitimate question. Eliminating the Salvation Army deduction isn’t the answer.

2. A Story Is Born

Meanwhile on page one . . . As Beck and Chapman were cutting the Clintons down to size, the lead story conveyed the dimensions of the problem they’re trying to solve. The article was the work of business writer Nancy Ryan–and of several middlemen. We presume the op-ed columns sailed into print. Ryan’s news had to follow a long and winding road.

Under the headline “The have-nots: Health-plan gap found in 13% of area homes; Businesses fear costs of remedy,” Ryan reported that according to a new study, 340,000 households in the six-county area now “have one or more members who lack health insurance . . . despite the fact that 60 percent of those households include someone who has a job, typically a full-time one.” These were to Ryan “grim statistics” raising a “key issue”: if the problem’s that large, who pays the whopping cost of fixing it?

Ryan wrote, “The immediate answer from business leaders is a resentful ‘we will.'”

The study had been conducted by the not-for-profit Metro Chicago Information Center in collaboration with the Chicago Department of Health. Last September MCIC offered the media similar, if preliminary, figures that neither of the downtown papers picked up. MCIC didn’t want its completed study to sail into the same oblivion.

Neither did the Community Media Workshop. Five years ago the CMW was founded to teach community groups and not-for-profits like MCIC the chops of making news and getting ink. Five months ago CMW shifted its base from Malcolm X College to larger facilities at Columbia College. Now that it was so close to the city’s major media, it launched a series of luncheons to bring reporters and “newsmakers” together.

Newsmakers? we asked Thom Clark, the CMW founder who’d just used the term. (You might recognize his name. Clark and cofounder Hank De Zutter produce Snap Judgments for the Reader each week.)

“Community-based neighborhood leaders,” he explained. “People who are working to really try to solve the problems the city is facing and either because they don’t have big PR budgets or are intimidated by the mainstream media don’t fit into the normal news flow.”

CMW’s “brown-bag luncheons” at the college began in January with a session on Chicago’s new affordable-housing ordinance. It drew 15 people, including two reporters. Last month the subject was community development; five reporters attended, and after listening to a panel discussion on empowerment zones, the Tribune’s John McCarron wrote a column on the subject.

The third luncheon, scheduled for March 17, Saint Patrick’s Day, was to deal with health-care policy. “Because the issue had heated up, I felt it was important that a number of groups we’d worked with over the last two years have an opportunity to meet the beat reporters who’d be covering the issue,” says Clark.

He rounded up panelists representing the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, Physicians for a National Health Program, and the Women’s Health Initiative. But he couldn’t find any reporters.

“I didn’t think we’d necessarily have the most important forum on the issue,” Clark says, “but all the news resources covering the parade could come a couple of blocks farther south after the parade and pick up some good hard news sources.”

The reporters and editors Clark approached didn’t see it that way. To his consternation, everyone told him health care was a Washington story now. “The Tribune was the one I felt most anxious about,” he says. “Their staff is deeper and bigger, and someone should cover [the luncheon], if even an intern.” A few days before the luncheon Clark called us and vented his exasperation. If it’s a Washington story, we suggested, why not talk to Jim Warren, the Tribune’s bureau manager there?

Clark and Warren talked twice. “I basically had confirmed for me how that beat was being handled by the Tribune,” Clark says. “It is viewed as a story centered on the U.S. Congress and therefore needed to be coordinated by the Washington bureau. [But] he agreed there were legitimate local angles to a national story, and I pointed out I was talking to the Washington bureau chief of the Chicago Tribune.”

Warren told Clark that business reporter Nancy Ryan had expressed an interest in writing about health insurance. “I said, isn’t it interesting that a business-side reporter is assigned to this?” Clark tells us. “How come the story keeps getting cut as “How much is this going to cost?’ instead of “What are we paying for?’ Which was what we wanted to get to on the panel.”

Not that Ryan wouldn’t be welcome. Three days before the luncheon Ryan called Clark to say she’d be there. The same day’s mail brought a press release touting MCIC’s health survey. Clark called Colette Speakman, an MCIC researcher, and told her to bring extra copies of the report to the luncheon. There might be some reporters for her to give them to.

Two reporters showed up, Ryan and someone from the Chicago Reporter. “During the meeting,” says Ryan, “several people in the audience wanted to know how not-for-profit organizations can get more interest from the media. And I said every day I get phone calls from Fortune 500 companies, and I never hear from not-for-profits. Needless to say, that generated a lot of interest, and a lot of business cards were exchanged.”

Clark pointed out Ryan to Speakman, who gave her one of the studies. A few days later Speakman called to see if she’d read it yet. No, Ryan admitted. You ought to, said Speakman.

Clark takes a paternal pride in this persistence. He says it’s CMW training asserting itself. “You can’t write a great release, send it out, and expect people to write great stories about it,” says Clark. “It’s taken a while, but [Speakman] has gotten into the habit of calling back.”

The rest of this story is the sheer magic of journalism. Now that she’s engaged, Ryan moves fast. She calls Speakman several times to clarify details, the last time at 11 o’clock the night before the story will appear. Associate business editor Pat Widder offers the story to section one. To Speakman’s amazement, it leads the paper.

That’s how easy it is to plant a story in the Tribune. Try to think of the op-ed fireworks as background music.

3. The View From the Tower

Nancy Ryan’s article was packaged with a piece by William Neikirk, the Washington bureau’s point man on health-care reform. Neikirk alerted readers to mounting queasiness. It seems a lot of Americans fear the only way the country can afford health insurance for the nearly 40 million people who don’t have it is to raise costs and scale back benefits of those who do. As the headline said, “I’ve got mine’ mood is prevalent.”

Among those who have theirs are reporters and columnists at the Tribune. A guest op-ed columnist from StreetWise might not be so hard on the Clintons.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.