Further points on McCaughey

By James Fallows

Following this post earlier today:

1) It turns out that the Senate Finance Committee has put out a set of FAQs addressing some of the problems E. McCaughey "discovered" in the fine print of the deal. It specifically knocks down the central Big Brother claim McCaughey makes -- namely, that federal health bureaucrats will use new electronic records to monitor your doctor's decisions about your care, and then penalize any doctors who deviate from federally-defined standard practice. The FAQ says:

Q: Will the health IT director have any influence on the decisions doctors and patients can make together about tests and treatment?
A: Absolutely not. This position's function is to make sure that doctors and other health care providers use good, secure technologies as they change their record-keeping systems from paper to computers.

And

Actually, the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology is not even new. President George W. Bush created the office by Executive Order a number of years ago. The bill simply codifies the office and gives it a specific job.

There are a bunch more, all in "absolutely not" or "actually" spirit. In fairness to McCaughey, she couldn't have seen this FAQ before she wrote. It came out on Tuesday of this week, after her column on Monday. But it makes you wonder: Did she bother to call anyone to check out her claims and inferences? Did she consult anything apart from her own imagination?

2) As numerous readers have written in to remind me, there is an in-house Atlantic angle to all of this. My current Atlantic colleague Andrew Sullivan was the editor of The New Republic in 1994, when the original McCaughey story came out. I like Andrew very much personally; I am very glad he's on the Atlantic team; I agree with him on most issues and disagree on some, including whether this article should ever have been published. Notwithstanding all or any of that, my beef here is with McCaughey, not with him.

I understand enough about both the editor's and the writer's role to understand that at a certain point, an editor has to trust the writer's basic honesty and operational competence. Good magazines have good fact-checking departments -- and our magazine has a great one. But you can't "check" a reporter's basic honesty. There is a difference between re-confirming facts to be sure the writer didn't miss something and having to treat a reporter like a defendant, whose every motive, claim, and observation is subject to doubt. When a publication -- or any organization -- gets into that position, as the New Republic eventually did with Stephen Glass, the normal precautions do no good. To put it differently, the 10% of an article you can check rests on faith that the other 90% you can't check, starting with the author's claim to be reading evidence honestly, is also true. If that faith is misplaced, you can easily get burned.

So: this is explicitly not an invitation to revisit the merits of publishing the original article 15 years ago. My complaint is with people who would believe or repeat similar claims from the same source (McCaughey) now.

Also: I see now that Rick Ungar, of Culture11.com, put out a line-by-line demolition of McCaughey's claims immediately after her column ran, here.

Thanks also to Neil Mackenzie for a lead. (And, for the final awkwardly-timed installment of my family-duties saga of recent weeks, I am about to leave internet range for another four days. At least this final duty is a pleasant one; next posting here likely to be in the wedding-announcement category.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/02/further-points-on-mccaughey/9545/