Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Times lets a bad guy off the hook

A healthcare counselor at Rikers was arrested last week for attempting to sell cocaine to an undercover cop less than a block away from the bridge to the detention facility. Apparently this was his second bust in the past year. He was responsible for counseling 40 inmates with co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders—the hardest cases to treat, even if you yourself are clean. He was an employee of Prison Health Services, a national prison healthcare provider that is the city’s sole contractor for healthcare in city detention facilities—a contract worth $366 million.

Observers have known this is a shady company for a long time. Since the city first contracted with Prison Health in 2001, the New York Times has done some great investigative reporting on the company, including a weeklong series, “Harsh Medicine,” published in the last week of February and first week of March 2005. The series looked at how a spate of suicides in 2004 and 2005 and the company's liability, how the inmate patients weren't necessarily the bad guys, whether the quality of service violated legally required standards of treatment, the city's inconsistent and inadequate efforts at oversight, and the myriad heads a- rollin' that resulted from the increased scrutiny on the company’s performance.

Between late February 2005 and January 2006, the Times wrote over a dozen pieces on Prison Health Services, starting with the “Harsh Medicine” series and tracking the follow-up. Most of the series was written by Paul von Zielbauer, the Times prison health beat reporter.

But from January 2006 until last week, the Times didn’t run a single story on Prison Health Services. (Zielbauer has been covering the wars from Iraq and Afghanistan since July 2006.) It published only two stories on Rikers healthcare in the past two years.

The Times dropped the ball on this important issue. It did great investative work over the course of a year, but turned off the spotlight as soon as some good things started to happen. It appears editors decided that their coverage adequately stirred the pot, though the underlying situation (e.g., the contract between the city and the shady provider) remained the same.

Sad, and an indication of how newsroom cuts hit metro beats and investigative teams the hardest... even with the country's paper of record.


Jeremy said...

Interesting pick-up, Matt. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a "prison health beat," although, I can see how it would be the first thing to go with budget cuts.

This picks up on an interesting point to your whole approach . . . sure, crime and health issues among the poor and imprisoned are certainly moral issues; but the harsh reality is that people don't like to read about them because of their inherently depressing nature. Shows like 'The Wire' draw us in to a world most of us are unfamiliar with, but allows us to keep a distance because it is ostensibly portrayed as fiction. How do you plan to make people care?

Matt Schwarzfeld said...

"Beat" is probably the wrong description. He covered the subject for about a year-and-a-half (including the time for the investigation). The decision the Times made wasn't to kill a beat per se, but that they had pursued the story far enough, even though the fundamentally problematic contract still existed.

You raise a good point re: making nonfiction stories of urban plight meaningful for audiences. What the Wire does that is so remarkable, in my mind, is that it combines narrative elements (character, interwoven plots, themes, etc. ) with extremely capable reporting. Yes, it is fiction since its characters, settings, and events don't or didn't exist / happen in the way represented in the show. But they are composites of the writers' experiences in very similar situations. I find it interesting that David Simon (a former reporter on crime and labor) and Ed Burns (former cop and teacher) do all the story-boarding, but novelists (Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and others) write the screenplays. I don't think what makes the Wire "safe" to viewers is that it's fiction. Rather, I think we're comforted by the narrative orderliness of it. Like any good reporting, it gives us access to worlds we don't know. Like any good fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter) narrative, it uses great characters and plot elements to help the medicine go down.

Before the Wire and Homicide, David Simon wrote about the same stuff using nonfiction. The Corner is essentially the story of the four boys from season four, Bubbles, and a drug addicted mother. It's great as sociology, but lacks the juice that keeps the show interesting. I don't think this is a limitation of the genre (there's lots of amazing nonfiction on dark subjects that makes extremely compelling reads), but rather a reflection of David Simon's strengths as a writer.

What I think really turns people off to stories of urban woe are biases and politics. I think the primary reason some don't like to read such stories is because they come off as knee-jerk liberal "sympathy pieces" about social derelicts. Sometimes this is true, sometimes it's bigotry or ignorance. I think the Wire succeeds in holding its characters morally accountable while conveying realistic expectations for their behavior based on their circumstances. If Dukie ends up a junky mess, we know the tragedy of it, but we also know it wasn't necessarily inevitable.