Sunday, April 06, 2008

Hospital to Clinton: Please stop telling false story

Hillary Clinton's troubled relationship with the truth is back in the headlines. Just two weeks after it was revealed that Hillary Clinton story about being under sniper fire in Bosnia was false, it appears that Clinton has been spreading another false story on the campaign trail. This false story does not involve Clinton herself, but her willingness to spread the story even after it became clear it was false illustrates Clinton's troublesome relationship with the truth.

Here's what we know: Hillary Clinton has been telling a story on the campaign trail of a young pregnant woman who was denied care by an Ohio hospital after she was unable to make a $100 co-payment. The young woman subsequently lost her child in childbirth and then died two weeks later from complications. That's the story that Hillary Clinton has told over and over again for the past five weeks or so. There's just one small problem: the story isn't true.
The woman, Trina Bachtel, did die last August, two weeks after her baby boy was stillborn at O'Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens, Ohio. But hospital administrators said Friday that Ms. Bachtel was under the care of an obstetrics practice affiliated with the hospital, that she was never refused treatment and that she was, in fact, insured.

"We implore the Clinton campaign to immediately desist from repeating this story," said Rick Castrop, chief executive officer of the O'Bleness Health System.[1]
That Clinton would take a false story and repeat it over and over again points to several failures on the part of the Clinton campaign.

1) Failure to Fact Check the Story

You are running for President. A random person approaches you at a campaign event and tells you a story, one that they heard second hand. It's a compelling story, but the person telling it was not involved first hand, it is just something he claims to have heard about. Do you A) investigate the story to find out whether it is true; or B) immediately incorporate it into your stump speech?
Linda M. Weiss, a spokeswoman for the not-for-profit hospital, said the Clinton campaign had never contacted the hospital to check the accuracy of the story, which Mrs. Clinton had first heard from a Meigs County, Ohio, sheriff’s deputy in late February.
So, for Hillary Clinton, it was choice A. At this point, Hillary Clinton was guilty of nothing more than poor judgment and poor oversight of her speech writers. She soon compounded that error.

2) Failure to Change Course

When a campaign makes a mistake, it needs to acknowledge it quickly, fix it quickly, and move on. If the campaign does this quickly enough, the mainstream media may not even bother to cover it, chalking it up to the "friction" involved in operating something as complex as a presidential campaign with something as fallible as ordinary human beings. Whether it was because of bad advice or because Clinton herself is unable to acknowledge failures or mistakes, the Clinton campaign failed to quickly acknowledge the mistake and correct it before it became an issue. In point of fact, her campaign continues to make bizarre non-denial denials:
A Clinton spokesman, Mo Elleithee, said candidates would frequently retell stories relayed to them, vetting them when possible. "In this case, we did try but were not able to fully vet it," Mr. Elleithee said. "If the hospital claims it did not happen that way, we respect that."[2]
No admission that the Clinton campaign was at fault for recklessly spreading a false story. There isn't a lot of middle ground here: either the story is true or it isn't. What steps did the Clinton campaign take to vet this story? Considering the seriousness of the accusations made in the story, were those steps adequate? Inevitable is not the same thing as infallible. This failure by Clinton's campaign to make the necessary corrections led to a third failure.

3) Failure to Stop Telling the Story

This may be the most serious of Clinton's failures in regard to this story. It is related in some ways to the second failure: if you can't admit your mistake, it's harder to take the necessary corrective action. If you claim, as Mr. Elleithee's quote seems to suggest, that there is more than one version of he truth, then you may be too slow to abandon a story you know to be false. This appears to have occurred in the Clinton campaign in the past few days.

It now appears that Clinton continued to tell this story even after it would have become obvious to any reasonable person that the story might be false and it would be a good idea to refrain from retelling the story until could be confirmed or debunked. Hillary Clinton went in a different direction. As recently as April 4, 2008--this past Friday night--at approximately 9:45 PM Eastern, Clinton took the stage in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and retold a story that her own campaign had acknowledged might be false. As The Jed Report put it:
Since the article was published at midnight, If the NYT did wait until 9:45PM to contact Clinton, it would have had to have done so in the next two hours and fifteen minutes. Given the late hour and the narrowness of that window, that seems to be a very unlikely scenario.

Therefore, in all likelihood, the Clinton campaign was aware the story was false as Clinton continued to tell it.

If that is proven true, then the question becomes: why did Clinton continue to tell the tale? Were people afraid to tell her? Were lines of communication bad? Did they think nobody would notice?

It doesn't just go to credibility -- it also goes to judgment.[3]
In a nutshell, then, what does this episode tell us about Hillary Clinton's fitness and suitability for the presidency? It is apparent that she failed to vet the story before repeating it. Once it became obvious that the story might be untrue, she failed to take timely corrective action. Even after she should have known the story was untrue, she continued to repeat it from the campaign stage.

When you couple this incident with other incidents involving her judgment and her relationship with the truth, I think a reasonable doubt arises as to whether Hillary Clinton is in fact fit for the role of the President of the United States.

Read The New York Times' coverage of this story here. Visit The Jed Report here.

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