Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Chasing a Non-Story

A strange story appeared in the New York Times on March 5. (A version of the story also ran in Australia's The Age the following day. However, The Age's version leaves out the most interesting part, so it's somewhat less useful here.)

Nicholas Wood, writing from Novi Sad, tells of a bizarre incident in which a family was told its father had passed away, only to find representatives of a private funeral home at their doorstep minutes after the hospital's call. Only trouble was, the patriarch was not dead - merely transferred to another ward, and the nurse, seeing the empty bed, jumped to conclusion. She also, allegedly, called the funeral home with the tip, so she could get a "finder's fee." The funeral home director denies the existence of such an arrangement, but Wood's sources in Serbian healthcare testify it is commonplace.

So far, it's a relatively harmless exercise in scorn ("OMG, Serbia's healthcare is so corrupt, nurses call funeral homes to get paid for dead people! Such savages!"), the kind of which wafts from every NYT article about Serbs and Serbia. But then Wood decides to take it to the next level:

"The collusion between health workers and funeral homes echoes a scandal that emerged in Zodz, Poland, in 2002. Prosecutors there investigated a similar trade and found that ambulance workers were deliberately arriving late at emergencies to increase their chances of finding business for funeral homes.

Prosecutors also discovered the widespread use of a muscle relaxant, which they believe was used to kill patients. Two doctors and two ambulance workers are on trial charged in the deaths of 18 people.

No evidence of such practices has come to light in Serbia..."

So, an ethically dubious practice of alerting funeral homes of deaths in hospitals has, in Nick Wood's mind, a lot in common with a criminal affair in Poland, where healthcare workers actually murdered their patients or deliberately allowed them to die. What exactly is the correlation? There isn't any. Oh, but Wood's choice of phrase ("No evidence... has come to light") implies that something like that may have happened in Serbia, it's just that no evidence has been found, yet. A false analogy, garnished with slick verbiage, leaving the impression that Serbian health workers are so corrupt, they are killing their own patients for a payout from funeral homes. Of course, Wood's story claims no such thing; but if it didn't mean to suggest it, why in the heavens did he mention the completely different, unrelated affair in Poland?

This reeks of the same technique used when mentioning "Srebrenica" in the mainstream press, where the (inaccurate) mention of "8000 unarmed men and boys" is inevitably followed with the qualifier, "the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II." And since it's part of the world's collective consciousness that WWII = the Holocaust, there is the Srebrenica = Holocaust (hence Serbs = Nazis) parallel the figure of speech is meant to invoke.

I have no idea how NYT decides on headlines; those choices are probably made in a New York newsroom, not by field reporters like Wood. This one was, "In Serbia, Deaths Set Off a Lucrative Race for Profit." It is by no means an ode to free enterprise (funeral homes), but a piece of filthy propaganda aimed to suggest that Serbs profit from death. The original non-story (nurses tip off funeral directors; amusing, but not criminal) is thus transformed into a vessel for demonization.

Think I'm reading too much into it? If you replaced "Serb" and "Serbian" with, say, "Kenya" or "Kenyan", there'd be an outcry that NYT engaged in racism. But Serbs, man, them you are allowed to hate. Doesn't everybody?

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