Community boosterism, where a news outlet aims to put the community or a business in the best possible light, has long been a staple of news reporting. But what happens when that interesting new business turns out to be the subject of a law enforcement probe? Two television stations – one in Tampa, Florida, the other in Austin, Texas, recently learned that credulous news coverage isn’t always a great thing.
An alternative autism treatment center called CARE Clinics was raided last week by the FBI and IRS following reports of widespread insurance fraud. Mary Ann Roser of the Austin American-Statesman has been following CARE Clinics at least since May when she reported that insurance companies were questioning the clinic’s billing practices. Roser has also written critically about Thoughtful House, another Austin clinic that charges parents for non-evidence based autism treatments.
But Austin’s Fox News affiliate, KVET, took the road well traveled. It invited CARE Clinic founder, Kazuko Grace Curtin, onto its morning show for what sounds like an infomercial for quack medicine. At one point Curtin defines autism as “a multi-factorial bio-medical disorder with psychiatric symptoms.” A serious journalist would have first learned the definition of autism while preparing for the interview, then challenged Curtin. An unserious journalist would never notice. The report was credulous enough that Curtin uses a video of the segment to promote her business on the CARE website.
Tampa’s WTSP also fell for Curtin’s call, electing to focus on “a new business in the bay area that puts treatment, research and services for autistic children under one roof.” A phone call to a qualified physician or researcher would likely have revealed that CARE Clinics treatments are not evidence-based, that the research is questionable and most likely aimed at producing a desired result, and that the services included unreliable and unnecessary lab tests.
Television news has regressed from the days of Walter Cronkhite, who died yesterday at the age of 92. The Most Trusted Man in America, was from an era when journalists took their jobs seriously, and the line between news and entertainment was discernible, if not clear. Uncle Walter was a gentleman from sole to crown, and his discipline and pitch perfect delivery of the news raised the bar for other broadcasters.
It was too good to last. Cronkite’s DNA is long gone from the news business, replaced by the dominant entertainment gene. Today’s litter of vapid, blow-dried news personalities are focus-group tested for Cronkitian likability, but without the burden of trust and, like, actually knowing what you’re talking about. It’s not what the founding fathers had in mind, 233 years ago, when they included freedom of the press in the first amendment to the Bill of Rights.
The public may be lulled to sleep by its journalists, but it is not completely fooled. Poll after poll show the public respects the news media about as much as politicians and mortgage derivative brokers. About ten years ago, news executives fought back with something they called “civic journalism”. Find out what your viewers and readers want, it was decreed, and then give it to them. Problem solved.
An offshoot of civic journalism is community boosterism, the ultimate in feel-good news reporting that aims to put the community, or a local business, in the best possible light. Boosterism comes in different flavors, from a sugary-sweet report on a local festival, to a content-lite look at a new business. “It wasn’t a story about autism” would be a likely defense for the CARE Clinic story, “we were covering a new business. That’s all.”
Abdicating one’s responsibility to accurately inform the public is never a good idea. Giving the owner of an alternative health clinic a free speaking platform is egregious.