Last week the press thought they had found the face of Obamacare in young Chad Henderson who, they widely reported, had made it through the thicket of federal exchange webpages and gotten coverage. One problem: he hadn't bought the coverage. Bob talks with Politico's Kyle Cheney about covering the story and the lessons journalists can learn from it.
BOB GARFIELD: We have somehow gotten through two-thirds of this program without uttering the “o” word. You're welcome. Well, we’re not gonna get into the nitty-gritty of the Affordable Healthcare Act or the drama of the debt ceiling showdown. What we’re going to talk about is the perils of journalism by personalization. You maybe remember the strange case last year of Joe Olivo, the small business owner quoted by every news organization and its brother about his opposition to Obamacare. You may also recall what went unmentioned in many reports, his affiliation with the National Federation of Independent Business, a group that advocates the repeal of Obama's health care law, Here was Olivo on our show, explaining himself.
JOE OLIVO: It’s my story, so I don’t really understand what there is to discover or what else they would need to disclose.
BOB GARFIELD: This week emerged a partisan ringer on the other side of the story. Chad Henderson got his 15 minutes, as the rare young American who, on the first day the federal health exchanges were open, had apparently managed to defeat balky technology and sign up for coverage.
CORRESPONDENT: Twenty-one-year-old Chad Henderson was raised by a single dad, who dropped insurance on him years ago because premiums raised higher than he could afford. His dad Bill has never been covered.
CHAD HENDERSON: I cannot remember time where he’s ever went to the doctor. It’ll be a lot easier knowing that we have health care.
BOB GARFIELD: What a perfect poster child for the demographic so critical to keeping the Affordable Care Act afloat, healthy young people to balance the risk of insurance for older, sicker people. So Henderson was interviewed by the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal, among others. Only two problems: First, he was hand delivered by a pro-Obamacare interest group, with which he was affiliated, and secondly, he hadn't actually bought the insurance.
Political health care reporter Kyle Cheney was one of those reporters who glommed onto Henderson. Speaking to us from the noisy Politico newsroom, he described the scramble to find someone, anyone, especially anyone young, who had signed up for health care.
KYLE CHENEY: We sent out alerts on message boards, on Twitter and just said, hey, can anyone produce an example of someone who’s made it all the way through the enrollment process, using the Federal online system, because we can't find anyone [LAUGHS]. We tried anecdotally to do it ourselves, and couldn't get through, still to this day can’t get all the way through to the point where you can see your insurance options. So, again, we were hearing from the administration that yes, people are enrolling, but we really were struggling to connect the dots.
BOB GARFIELD: I must ask, did you use the internal email to ask people if they had young cousins [LAUGHS] who had signed up? I’m talking about your own colleagues. Talk to cabdrivers? I mean, how many resources did you use?
KYLE CHENEY: I mean, everyone we could think of. It wasn’t so much that we were looking for a young person, although like, as you mentioned, those young invincibles are a key demographic for the administration. We were looking for anyone, [LAUGHS] young, old, anyone who was able to use the system successful.
BOB GARFIELD: Chad Henderson had been offered up by Enroll America. How did you first come across his name?
KYLE CHENEY: We noticed him on Twitter, and we also noticed on Twitter. At the same time, that he was an Organizing for Action volunteer, which is a President Obama supporter. So that raised our eyebrows a little bit.
BOB GARFIELD: Raised eyebrows, how about giant red flag billowing in the wind?
KYLE CHENEY: You know, I think everyone has good hindsight on this one, and we jumped at the chance to talk to someone who described in great detail getting through the, the enrollment process and selecting a plan and talking about his inability to get insurance from the time he was six years old. All the facts were on the table. The other fact that wasn’t on the table was that he hadn’t actually enrolled.
BOB GARFIELD: The only flaw in this otherwise beautiful narrative was the – premise.
KYLE CHENEY: Exactly.
And people said, look, here’s the liberal media trying to spin a success story about Obamacare, but I kept saying this is not a, a feel-good story for the Obama administration. This is a story about how impossible it is to find someone who had enrolled at this point. [LAUGHS] The reason everyone had flocked to Chad Henderson was not because they were looking for a feel-good story, but because they couldn't find anybody else.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't know if this snafu is the stuff of parable, necessarily, but it is a teachable moment.
KYLE CHENEY: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: What’s the lesson here?
KYLE CHENEY: It’s sort of a philosophical question for reporter, in general: To what degree do you take what your sources tell you at face value, and, and to what degree are you obligated to – demand, you know, documentation of everything they tell you? Does that mean every time now someone says I got insurance through, you know, an Obamacare exchange, you have to doubt that premise. To some degree, yes, you know, given the challenges we’ve seen in enrolling and, you know, if someone’s gonna claim that they’ve made it through a process that most people are struggling with, you have to go an extra step to verify.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Kyle, thank you very much.
KYLE CHENEY: Of course.
BOB GARFIELD: Kyle Cheney covers health care for Politico. He spoke to us from the Politico newsroom in Washington, DC.