The Corner

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Did the Times Print an Urban Legend?

Healthcare workers place a stretcher inside an ambulance at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas, July 8, 2020. (Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters)

This week, the Times brings us a story from Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. The headline is: “Texas Hospital Says Man, 30, Died After Attending a ‘Covid Party,’” and what we get is a story with one source.

The story reveals itself in three paragraphs:

A 30-year-old man who believed the coronavirus was a hoax and attended a “Covid party” died after being infected with the virus, according to the chief medical officer at a Texas hospital.

The official, Dr. Jane Appleby of Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, said the man died after deliberately attending a gathering with an infected person to test whether the coronavirus was real.

In her statements to news organizations, Dr. Appleby said the man had told his nurse that he attended a Covid party. Just before he died, she said the patient told his nurse: “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”

The story has real didactic power in the current environment, illustrating perhaps four points of contention:

1) A young person

2) in a red state

3) believed the virus was a hoax

4) and failed to socially distance.

As a result, he’s dead.

The original sub-headline was: “I thought this was a hoax,” the man told his nurse, a hospital official said.

It’s a morality tale, really. Don’t believe it’s a hoax! Or that you aren’t at risk because you are young! Maybe don’t live in a bad red state where they aren’t taking COVID seriously, or go to these parties. The only thing missing was a MAGA hat and a rueful dying admission, “I shouldn’t have trusted Trump or my Republican governor!”

But, as I read the story originally earlier this week, I realized the details didn’t quite add up. If you believe COVID is a hoax, why would you attend a “Covid Party?” And, in a pandemic for an airborne disease, aren’t all parties potentially COVID parties? Chicken pox parties were aimed at spreading a local infection purposely to younger children who have milder cases. People don’t hold them because they are skeptics. Something doesn’t make sense.

A closer look showed that not only were there no names named, but there was no date or location of the party and no other sources about where and whether it happened. And then there was the curious fact that a dying man’s self-incriminating final words were relayed to the press. Who gave permission for that?

But if you click on the article link now, as I write this, you will find a few paragraphs of hedging added in:

The Times could not independently verify Dr. Appleby’s account. On Monday, the San Antonio health department said its contact tracers did not have any information “that would confirm (or deny)” that such an event had happened there.

In recent days, the hospital distributed video of Dr. Appleby  describing the case , along with a press statement. She did not say when or where the party took place, how many people attended or how long afterward the man was hospitalized with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She said she was sharing the story to warn others, especially in Texas, where cases are surging.

These paragraphs were added long after publication. They also indicate where the story originated. The young junior reporter who wrote it isn’t in Texas but sitting at a desk, presumably at home. There is also another additional paragraph saying that the Times tried several times, through the hospital, to contact the dead man’s family.

You might also note the entirely different sub-headline: “Health experts have been skeptical that such parties occur, and details of this case could not be independently confirmed.”

In fact, the story seems to have changed several times since publication, in order to salvage the Times’s own credibility. The story has been transformed, edit by edit, from one of a man who died by taking a foolish risk in which the doctor was the only source, to a story about the questionable claim a doctor is making. There are no editor’s notes on it documenting the changes in the published story and the huge tonal shift from credulousness to skepticism.

A number of young journalists have been arguing lately that the traditional mission of journalism needs to be cashiered in favor of “moral clarity,” that journalism should be more like activism. What we have in this story is an example of where that leads us. The “moral clarity” was all there. It told a literal “cautionary moral tale.” But, the reporting and editing have lacked all the traditional ethics of the trade of journalism. The result looks to me like fake news and a disgraceful attempt at memory-holing the evidence.

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