On Sunday, October 2nd, there was a tragic accident in Lake George, New York. A boat with 47 elderly tourists on board capsized. Twenty of them drowned. The coverage was excellent. We quickly read or heard about the victims, the boat, the applicable laws, the customary procedures, that the boat had bench seats rather than bucket seats. The boat had passed its last inspection. Reporters followed up on similar accidents around the country.
What was fascinating was how appropriate and thorough the stories were. More than that, how easy and natural it seemed that the story was reported that way.
Contrast that with what happened about a week earlier, when it came out that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was being investigated by the SEC and the Justice Department for insider trading. If the story was covered at all – ABC World News Tonight passed on it – it was given bare bones treatment. AP reporters Jonathan M. Katz and Larry Margasak were an exception, they followed up and revealed that Frist lied about having no communications with the trustee about what was in the trust.
But beyond that, in the early reports, we entered into the land of what I call fog facts.
Fog facts are things that have been reported, somewhere, sometime, but have disappeared into the mist—like the pre-9/11 hints that there were hijackers in our midst. The fog facts can still be found by enterprising reporters, but with time and news space increasingly crunched—and media priorities shifting to the trivial—they usually remain obscure, at least to the general public.
If, for example, the Frist/insider trading story had been covered the way the Lake George story had been covered, here are some of the things that might have quickly emerged out of the fog:
Bill Frist is a very rich man. At the time of his first Senate race in 1994, he declared his personal holdings as $20 million, and $13 million of that was in HCA stock. HCA is the largest health care company in the country. It was founded by Frist’s father, Thomas, and, later on, run by his brother, Thomas, Jr.
When Frist won, he became the health care industry’s own senator. It’s not that they bought him, he was them. He voted against the “Patient Bill of Rights.” He made it harder for patients to sue their HMOs for not receiving care. He sponsored the bill that protects pharmaceutical companies from liability for their use of thimersol, a mercury-based ingredient in vaccines. He pushed through the mega-bill that makes Medicare pay top dollar to the pharmaceutical industry. He worked for the tobacco interests and against USDA inspections of food suppliers.
Meantime, an investigation of HCA was going on. It turned into the largest medical fraud case in history. HCA had defrauded Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare, the military’s health care program. They kept two sets of books. They paid kick backs. They engaged in “upcoding,” billing for more expensive procedures than what they actually performed. They charged their advertising to the government as “community education.”
HCA consolidated and sold billions in property to pay for the legal fight. But then they settled with the government just two days before Trent Lott stepped down and Frist stepped up to become Majority Leader.
Part of that settlement could be regarded as a sweetheart deal. A plea of guilty to the criminal part of the charges would have disqualified them from government contracts. They were allowed to use subsidiaries to accept the criminal liability and then let those companies go out of business.
Frist’s brother, Thomas, was charged with insider trading in 1997, but survived the allegations.
This was not Bill Frist’s only peculiar financial transaction. In 2000 he took a million dollars in campaign contributions and invested them in the stock market. He lost $710,000 of it. He stood by his decision, saying, "Over time, money that is placed in markets will increase faster than placed in banks."
Surely, some of this, if not all of it, is as relevant and as important as bench seats versus bucket seats at Lake George. Yet in the Lake George stories, details, background and context were as natural as using a headline and a lead paragraph, yet the breaking Frist story was written as if the events occurred in ghostly isolation, disconnected from others like them, from society, and from humanity in general.
One story, Lake George, has a certain neutrality about it. It’s real news (it’s not political scandal). So reporters and editors fearlessly get it all for us. They do not just report the events, they pull all the relevant facts (laws, history, similar events, speculations, social impact) out of the thousands of bits of information floating around-- out of the fog.
The other story is also news. In terms of what will or will not happen to us in the future, it is significantly more important. All the bits and pieces that I’ve tossed in here can be found, without too much effort. Yet, they're not there. They're still lost in the fog.
If I said that that it is because it involves a very powerful man backed by a very powerful political party with lots of supporters who attack the press when they feel their leaders are attacked, most reporters and editors would say no, they would never make a decision to report based on fear or favor. Yet virtually everyone handled the story the same way.
Just as reporting all the details about the Lake George incident seems natural, it seems just as natural that the intersection between Frist's money and politics, the other insider trading in the administration, the corrupt and criminal practices that are the basis of Frist's fortune went unremarked. Under-reporting in such circumstances has become institutionalized. That's why the fog remains.
Larry Beinhart is author of the novels "Wag the Dog" and last year's "The Librarian." His new book is "Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin," published by Nation Books. He lives in Woodstock, N.Y.