When we need a governor, they send in the clown

Adjusting his rubber nose and straightening his oversized bow tie, Gov. Jim Gibbons took time out from juggling the cracked plates of his administration Saturday to criticize the media for their "buffoonery" in covering the health crisis at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

In a story posted Sunday by the Reno Gazette-Journal, Gibbons blamed the press for what he called the "hysteria" surrounding the issue, which has resulted in six confirmed cases of hepatitis C contracted at the endoscopy center during a time its officials practiced substandard medical procedures.

"The hysteria has been created by people not getting the right information," he said. "The fact is they haven't found more than those six people."

Gibbons defended the endoscopy center's doctors and nurses and downplayed the issue. In fact, the story depicts a governor remarkably well versed on the talking points that might have come straight from the mouth of his generous political benefactor, endoscopy center owner Dr. Dipak Desai. The governor's critics like to point out when he's weak on specifics in areas as varied as budgeting and drug abuse, but even they will have to admit he was locked and loaded this time.

He downplayed the number of confirmed hepatitis C cases, dismissed the idea that "gross negligence" might have taken place. The legislative hearing statements of Southern Nevada Health District senior epidemiologist Brian Labus to the contrary, Gibbons said no single-use anesthesia vials were reused at the center.

Forget for a moment that this story would be a little easier to report if the key subject stopped hiding behind public relations consultants and criminal defense lawyers long enough to give some straight answers. Gibbons was quick to point fingers at the press, but could barely bring himself to place the responsibility for the problem with his political ally.

And on he went. After reading the Reno story, I wondered why Desai bothered to hire R&R Partners to spin his public relations when Gibbons was doing such a thorough job.

But that was medical reporter and media critic Jim Gibbons on Saturday.

By Sunday a different governor emerged. The state's medical reporter-in-chief had been replaced by Gibbo the Clown. After the Review-Journal's Paul Harasim neatly sutured the alliances linking Desai and members of the state's Board of Medical Examiners, the body of gubernatorial appointees that in theory would judge whether the physician was fit to keep his license, Gibbons sent out a press release calling for the resignations of three members of the board of medical examiners and its executive director, Tony Clark. The story reported what doctors privately acknowledge but rarely speak openly about: The medical board is a hotbed of political juice that exists in part to protect the image of our physicians.

Perhaps the governor will take time out from making water squirt from his boutonniere long enough to reveal to the public whether he had any intention of taking action prior to the publication of the Review-Journal's story. I'm betting he didn't.

Almost as an aside, Sunday's press release included this statement: "The governor also said he regretted using the word 'buffoonery' while describing media coverage of the health care crisis. 'My intention was to be sure that people were not fearful of seeking medical care because of the intense media coverage, it was a poor choice of words and I regret it,' Gibbons said."

Obviously, the governor's advisers were trying to put out a carelessly started fire. They were still dousing flames at a Monday conference call.

It wasn't the press that sent out 40,000 letters instructing the center's patients to get tested for possible exposure to deadly viruses. It wasn't the press that uncovered shabby medical practices at Desai's clinic and invited officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Southern Nevada.

It isn't the press that sets the budget that pays for the oversight of outpatient surgical centers. The state's lack of regulatory scrutiny may be a national embarrassment, but it isn't news.

I tried to cut Gibbons slack in his first year. He inherited a bad economy, and I didn't want to believe the criticism that he was an arrogant autocrat and a company man.

But his health crisis flip-flop is straight out of Barnum & Bailey, and his contempt for the press is as plain as the rubber nose on his face.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.


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