UNITED MEMORIAL MEDICAL CENTER is a small hospital in a working class part of Houston, with just over 100 beds and 40 doctors. Most of its patients lack health insurance, and a wrecking company is located opposite its main building, which has the look of a brutal mall from the 1970s.
Yet nearly every major U.S. news outlet — the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NBC, CBS, and others — published stories or photos about United Memorial in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the pandemic’s iconic pictures shows the hospital’s then-chief of staff, Dr. Joseph Varon, embracing an older patient. No other hospital came close to getting as much coverage in the early phase of the pandemic.
The reason is simple: Unlike virtually every other hospital in the country, United Memorial was opening its doors to journalists trying to document the suffering on the front lines of the pandemic. The photographer who shot the picture of Varon visited the hospital more than 20 times. Because journalists were being turned away elsewhere, they flocked to United Memorial.
“One of the things a hospital has to do, to provide care for an acute illness, is to educate the public,” Varon told The Intercept. “And the only way I can educate the public is through the media. I need the world to understand what is going on.”
An investigation by The Intercept reveals that in the first months of the pandemic, only a small number of the more than 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. let journalists inside…