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Opinion Column
For the week of September 27 through October 3, 2000

Revisiting ‘Catch-22’—the paradox that is the St. Luke’s medical center

Commentary by PAT MURPHY

A dilemma befitting Joseph Heller’s World War II "Catch-22" novel is what the Idaho Mountain Express faces in relations that’ve turned icy with the new St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center.

In "Catch-22," a title that’s become an idiom for paradox, Heller created what Webster’s Dictionary describes as "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem."

Bear with me while I explain.

On Sept. 8, St. Luke’s began requiring the Mountain Express to submit questions about the new hospital in writing. Written replies would be delivered within eight business hours, St. Luke’s promised.

This presumes that questions about the hospital will occur at times convenient to St. Luke’s executive hours.

Two reasons were given by medical center CEO Jon Moses and Boise-based St. Luke's vice president for corporate development Bill Bodnar.

First, Moses is far too busy building the new hospital to take calls from Mountain Express reporters—but only Mountain Express reporters, mind you, not other reporters.

Second, the Mountain Express "has occasionally not accurately reported verbal responses we have made to reporter’s inquiries," according to a policy directive FAXed to the Mountain Express by Moses.

And therein lies the Catch-22 rub.

When Mountain Express reporter Travis Purser called Moses and asked for examples of inaccuracies so a correction could be published if justified, Moses refused to cite inaccuracies, waving Purser off with the lame excuse the Mountain Express wouldn’t provide proper display for corrections even if he cited errors.

I called vice president Bodnar, who confirmed: (a) the policy applies only to the Mountain Express; and (b) the corporate concern about so many questions, which—surprise!—is precisely what readers expect of a local newspaper tracking a major community project.

But Mountain Express publisher Pam Morris recalls her first, odd encounter with Moses during a phone call he made to her a year ago that suggested other motives.

"Your newspaper is nothing," she recalls Moses blurting out belligerently. "No one reads it. It’s a joke"—as if Moses is a big city sophisticate who believes he’s doomed to a term in Hicksville.

The New York Times the Mountain Express is not. And St. Luke’s, thank you, isn’t the Mayo Clinic, either.

But the Mountain Express and The New York Times try to do what St. Luke’s and the Mayo Clinic try to do—serve the public with their best with resources at their disposal.

As for Mountain Express readership, ample year-round advertising should be adequate testament that advertisers get their money’s worth in reader response.

Maybe the diligence of the Mountain Express grates on Moses, just like politicians don’t like being asked questions of their performance.

In an effort to reason with Moses, Mountain Express editor Ron Soble last Thursday sent reporter Dana DuGan to talk to Moses.

Standing in the doorway of his office, Moses refused to talk with reporter DuGan—"absolutely not," he declared—or, he said, anyone from the Mountain Express "as long as you have that editor and that woman as publisher."

If St. Luke’s is trying to hinder Mountain Express coverage of the hospital or punish the newspaper, it’ll fail. St. Luke’s only harms itself.

The corporate attitude of St. Luke’s and Moses will strike most thinking residents of the Wood River Valley as officious and petty if not arrogant and haughty.

Now that St. Luke’s has tapped the community for $18 million in donations, it now imposes conditions on accountability and access to its brass.

CEO Moses seems to consider the hospital a personal fiefdom, not a community institution, which he’ll govern with personal pique and caprice as his mood swings come and go.

Pat Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.


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