A favorite line from a favorite movie, “Absence of Malice,” echoes strongly today.
Paul Newman’s character, a scheming but straight-arrow nephew of a Mafioso, tells an ambitious reporter played by Sally Field: “You don’t print the truth. You print what people say.”
Much as we journalists protest that characterization of our profession, written by a screenwriter with years of journalistic experience, it too often is true.
Among the unfortunate reasons are the veils of secrecy continually unfurled by those who know the truth — or, at least, think they do.
It’s a challenge for journalists because our job isn’t to be stenographers of what happens but to present the whole story, in context, so readers can get as clear an idea as possible of what’s going on with the community institutions they pay for.
Democracy depends on that. As Thomas Jefferson put it: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
All of this is backdrop for what was an extremely confusing week.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard from a member of the board that oversees St. Luke Hospital that he was sorry he had criticized county commissioners in an ongoing dispute with the hospital over payment for ambulance services.
The board member told us he had resigned in protest of how the hospital treated the county. He later told us how the hospital also was in a dispute with a local pharmacy and had threatened to start its own competing pharmacy, which the board member rightfully opposed.
One of our reporters attempted to reach the hospital and other officials in the know, but her requests were ignored or rebuffed. We published his allegations. He even dropped by our office the day the paper came out and told our reporter there was nothing wrong with her story except that a part about the hospital’s chief executive wanting to bring his sister-in-law in to run the pharmacy was only a rumor.
He gave us a letter to the editor, making that point and several others, most of them critical of the hospital CEO. Six days later, he presented us a completely different letter, this time saying he didn’t think he had been speaking on the record and denying that he had heard anything official about establishing a pharmacy.
We thought that was odd, in that he had been worried in his conversations with our reporter about whether he might be divulging facts from a secret executive session of the hospital board. There’s no law preventing that, but it did lead us to think that the discussion might have happened behind closed doors.
Later that same day, we saw that the CEO — who never responded to our request for comment and never tried to reach anyone on our staff after the story was published — went to another newspaper and accused us of printing a false rumor.
The other paper’s story states that we printed the rumor multiple times even though it was in only one story. The paper also said the CEO “expressed frustration that his efforts to clear up the inaccuracies have been ignored by the Record.”
If he made such efforts, they never involved us. Perhaps they were what changed the tenor of the second letter submitted by the former hospital board member.
Most of the CEO’s announcement to the other paper dealt not with the pharmacy issue but with a rehash of old arguments regarding disputes between the hospital and the county ambulance service.
Concerned about any allegation regarding any of our news stories, we assigned a second reporter to independently investigate what might have happened. She was in the midst of doing just that when the hospital board met for nearly an hour and a half behind closed doors for undisclosed, possibly illegal, reasons, emerged, and announced that the CEO was resigning.
Where’s the truth in all of this? With hospital employees, board members, and others involved not answering our questions, we only know what some people say, and we don’t know whether what they are saying uses semantics to make allegations or denials that are true only with whatever provisos they carefully have offered, like the teen who denies that he violated a parent’s rule not to play with matches, ignoring the fact that he burned their house down while playing with a Bic lighter.
What we do know is that there appeared to have been a billing dispute between the hospital and the pharmacy, that the pharmacy wanted (and still wants) an independent audit, and that — if what people say is to be believed — there might have been an offer by the hospital to forgive some payments the pharmacy owed if only it would drop its request for an audit.
Whether establishing a rival pharmacy was considered as a threat or for some other reason is one of those things we’re unlikely ever to know.
It’s up to you, dear reader, to decide where the truth is in all of this and whether any of us will ever be able to know for sure.
The only thing we promise is we won’t stop trying to find the truth, even if we occasionally have to rely not on actual facts but on what people say they are.
— ERIC MEYER