Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, July 31, 2015

An open letter to Fred LeBrun

A well-oiled machine keeps
the bad news out of sight

To: Mr. Fred LeBrun, Times Union:
Posted Friday July 31, 2015

Reading your columns, I notice that you often write about corruption and the undue influence of money.

Mostly your opinions are about the greed of politicians and other public officials. This is good; we’re losing count of the number of people on the public payroll who have been arrested/indicted and, in some cases, convicted, for benefiting themselves or their families at the public’s expense.

But I can’t help wondering if you are at all concerned about the money that for years has totally corrupted the people who run the organization that pays you.

There are certainly some searching questions you could put to these people.

For example, why did the TU run several stories and even an editorial about Laura Woolsey, a young women with a known heart condition who died after her complaints of chest pain were ignored by staff at a jail, while it published absolutely nothing about Joanne Clark, who also had a known heart condition, and died when her complaints of chest pain were ignored by an emergency room doctor at Albany Memorial Hospital?

Both deaths prompted a lawsuit. The Clark claim — filed by her husband, former Rensselaer city alderman Fred Clark — ended with a settlement, and the doctor’s license was revoked.

But not a word about it appeared in your newspaper, not even as a brief, certainly not the multiple stories and the scathing editorial the TU ran about the Woolsey death.

Then there’s the case of former gynecologist  — and now state prisoner — Akiva Abraham.

Do you really think that this case was not newsworthy? Do you really think the public should not know that the process of checking a doctor’s background and credentials was evidently so lax at Samaritan Hospital that this contemptible individual was repeatedly granted privileges, despite the fact that he had been fired by two previous facilities for falsifying medical records, and was facing two malpractice suits —  also not reported — one of which involved the death of a woman during childbirth?

Clearly you employers didn’t think so; during six years of litigation that followed an unauthorized and unnecessary surgery performed by Abraham, in which the hospital faced the unusual claim of ‘negligent credentialing’ the paper never once mentioned the case, even as it published a dozen stories about the doctor’s other legal problems.

That case settled on the first day of trial.  By then, Abraham who had no malpractice insurance, had filed for bankruptcy protection and was in prison so no settlement money was coming from him. 
And Samaritan's insurance company may have considered the hospital's failure to vet Abraham not a mistake, but rather a deliberate decision and therefore not covered by the policy - meaning the settlement as well as possibly the cost of the defending the litigation would have to come from the hospital’s own funds.

If so, that’s money that could otherwise be spent on things that would benefit patients.  Isn’t that something a newspaper should be investigating on behalf of the public?

Obviously the TU’s management didn’t think so.  Far more important to it is protecting the public image of an company that pours a lot of money into the advertisements that litter the paper every day and has the publisher's name in large letters on one of its buildings.
And now I’m wondering if hospital operators are the only beneficiaries of this suppression of information about big advertisers.

Car dealerships also spend a lot of money on ads. They must get sued. And even though they are rarely alleged to have caused a death, nevertheless, a story about a lawsuit over, say, a defective vehicle or a misrepresented loan would not be good for business.

So now I’m going to expand my searches of court records to include claims against the dealers whose ads run in the papers every day.

Then there are the Realtors. We saw how important their ad revenue is back in 2012 when a brief comment in a TU story prompted one of them to cancel his contract.

As was reported here and elsewhere, your publisher immediately interrupted a vacation to meet with a  Realtors’ group and apologize for — gasp! —  allowing a mildly negative opinion about them to appear in his paper.

Then he ran a full-page ad supporting Realtors several times over a week, estimated to be worth $78,000, to make amends for what he reportedly said in a letter to the Realtors was an “unfortunate” and “one-sided” article.

Actually, it wasn’t one-sided, and that was the problem.  

Of course, publishers protecting advertisers and clients isn't new.  Thirty five years ago I was writing for the Greenbush Area News, a small weekly newspaper in Rensselaer County.  One day, Anthony DiBello, an excitable Italian-American who was the owner and publisher of the paper, gave the editor a note, saying “Talk to me before you write anything negative about these.” or words to that effect.  On that paper were the names of several public officials and businesses.

One of those businesses was New York Telephone (which later became NYNEX and is now Verizon), with which DiBello had a contract to sort and send out bulk mail.

A few months later the editor resigned and I was left to run the paper, which including writing editorials.  One of these editorials suggested that New York Telephone provide phone lines for a struggling local volunteer ambulance squad at cost, as it did for its employees.

When copies of the paper arrived at the office DiBello saw the editorial but, according to people who were there, didn’t read it through.  Instead, he immediately ordered all four thousand copies of the paper destroyed and reprinted with the editorial removed.

A week later — after I had resigned  — stories about DiBello’s action appeared in the Times Union - which also printed the entire censored piece - and in the Record.  A New York Telephone spokesman was quoted saying the editorial made a reasonable suggestion that the company would consider implementing.

I don’t think you had a general-interest column back then, but its interesting to reflect that if you did have one, you might have lambasted Dibello.

Now, three decades later, it is the Times Union that is suppressing stories to protect its revenue stream.  Even if you or anyone at your paper wrote about how Akiva Abraham, the unfit gynecologist, was repeatedly authorized to practice, it wouldn’t be published, no matter how much it is in the public’s interest to know that it happened.

Which means that the TU and the area’s other dailies are not newspapers;  They are now merely a series of cogs in the hospitals’ elaborate PR machines, which for 15 years have hidden dozens of preventable deaths and injuries and the bitter litigation which followed some of them, while presenting a glowing but totally false image to the public.

And you, Mr LeBrun, are one of those cogs.

The story on this blog about the angry Realtor is HERE

The 2008 post about the censored editorial is HERE