Saturday, May 24, 2008

It’s Only The Headline That Matters, Anyway

Interesting story-behind-the-story over at Majikthise about John McCain’s release of his medical records.

The document dump resulted in such glowing headlines yesterday and today as these. Wow, 1,173 pages! Incredible! The Senator is “fit and cancer free”! Zowie! It’s a “clean bill of health”! Take that, you nattering nabobs of negativism! Score another one for McCain transparency!

Of course, it pays to read the fine print:
Campaign staffers told the paper that the chosen reporters would be given only three hours to view about 400 pages of documents from 2000 to 2008. They wouldn't even be allowed to make photocopies for their own reference, or to show to experts.

Curiously, this year's crop of journalists were not given access to the records that McCain released to an equally select group during his last presidential bid. The last batch of records covered McCain's lifetime medical history through 1999.

The favored news outlets are the Washington Post, the Arizona Republic, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Associated Press.  All other media will have to make due with a pool report generated by the elect, a 90-minute conference call with McCain's doctors and campaign-produced summaries to be posted online.

McCain let a group of hand picked lay-people view an incomplete set of medical records for a ridiculously short period of time. Their access was so limited as to render their opinions worthless.

Indeed. Few news outlets made mention of the way in which they obtained the information, and no reporter admitted that they had not personally reviewed the medical records. Even CNN seemed confused, with anchor John Roberts first saying Sanjay Gupta was “among a small group of reporters allowed to review the records.” But Gupta himself indicated his reporting was based on information from the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, what a difference eight years makes to the New York Times: in December 1999, information about how the records were released made the third paragraph of the Times’ coverage. Back then, Lawrence Altman reported the release of medicals records was “carefully controlled,” “incomplete,” and noted the campaign “selectively allowed some news organizations to examine the records before others.”

The same rules seem to apply this time, but readers must wade through 10 paragraphs about the Senator's robust health before learning that the reporters relied on “a pool report based on the review of the records” and participated in a conference call with doctors.

Gee, I think that information adds some much needed perspective to Altman and Elizabeth Bumiller’s assertion that the Senator is in “excellent health and shows no evidence of the recurrence of the melanoma skin cancer.”

You know, the McCain campaign made a decision to release these medical records, just like they released Cindy McCain’s 2006 tax return. But don’t act like you should be getting brownie points for transparency here; you’ve done less than the bare minimum, relying on an acquiescent press and a public that rarely drills deeper than the headline to get away with tossing out a few crumbs of information that paint your candidate in the best possible light.

As Lindsay Beyerstein says, “The only question is whether the press will continue to participate in the charade.”

I think we all know the answer to that.