You would have to be dead or on the moon not to have heard about the appalling living conditions and Byzantine red tape that dogs wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The explosion of news about these conditions began on Sunday, February 18, with a front-page story in the Washington Post.
In this story and a follow-up the next day, the Post documented the plight of wounded soldiers who, as outpatients, find themselves in a medical limbo, living in buildings plagued by mold, peeling paint and rodents as they wait endlessly for medical appointments and government paperwork that will help them get their lives back in order. The series provoked huge coverage from other media, prompted House hearings, caused the firings of the top brass at the Medical Center and the resignation of the Army Secretary.
The series has been hailed as a testament to the power of a free press. And it does demonstrate what happens when a powerful newspaper like the Post takes on an issue.
So this is how things are supposed to work, right? Crusading reporters uncover major problems with veterans’ care. The stories provoke enormous attention and arouse the interest of Congress. Heads roll, the President says he is angry and demands immediate change, and the painters and mold removers are all over Walter Reed’s outpatient buildings.
Well, not exactly. Before this story became something the mainstream media dined on, it had simmered a very long time on the back burner.
Mark Benjamin, now a reporter at the online magazine Salon, wrote his first story about the horrendous living conditions of wounded soldiers at Fort Stewart, Georgia, for United Press International in 2003. In early 2005, Benjamin wrote a searing Salon story about the suicide of a combat veteran angry and discouraged by the treatment he was getting at Walter Reed. Another of Benjamin’s stories, dated January 27, 2005, blasted an Army policy of charging some outpatients for their meals. Within the context of that story, Benjamin touched on many of the issues that the Post would target two years later.
“Processing at Walter Reed can take over a year, much to the frustration of the soldiers who would prefer to get outpatient treatment near their homes and families,” Benjamin explained. “Soldiers in medical hold [outpatients] also complain they are still expected to line up for daily formations and buy new uniforms even as they struggle with debilitating physical and mental trauma from their service in Iraq.”
To its credit, National Public Radio’s On The Media interviewed Benjamin recently about these early, groundbreaking stories that largely failed to capture the attention of other, larger media outlets.
Salon may not be the New York Times or NBC News. But it is not some obscure, small-town weekly, either. You would have thought that Benjamin’s stories would have attracted more interest and given more public visibility to a very serious problem.
There were other voices out there, too. On February 17, 2005, the House Committee on Government Reform looked into medical treatment for wounded guardsmen and reservists. “For the last year, along with the Government Accountability Office, our committee has been investigating the plight of injured Army Guard and Reserve soldiers seeking quality care, standardized medical and personal assistance and comprehensive service. We’re here today to ask some basic but troubling questions,” said the then-Committee Chairman Representative Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia. Added California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, “The way the Administration is treating wounded soldiers and veterans is a disgrace.”
The hearings and the Salon stories were part of a public record that any reporter could have accessed. This scandal did not have to wait until someone close to the family of a Walter Reed outpatient approached the Washington Post.
Post reporters and editors are to be praised for taking those complaints seriously and following up on them. But why did this scandal take so long to reach a critical mass of the public and decision-makers? Benjamin, interviewed by On the Media, surmised that Americans simply weren’t ready for this depressing news two years ago. Indeed, instead of outrage at the Army, Benjamin said his stories provoked dozens of e-mails attacking him. Certainly, it did not help that the Army tried to control what reporters could see and who they could talk to at these hospital facilities, making it harder to get at the truth.
But that’s not a good enough answer. The truth is, with all the cutbacks in both broadcast and print newsrooms, the emphasis on entertainment and “news you can use”–and on the bottom line over solid, investigative journalism–there is little incentive for reporters to go the extra mile and find good stories, stories they might not be able to report because they take too much time or may rock too many boats, or are “too depressing” for the demographic the news outlet seeks. And then there is what I call the “Maureen Dowd” approach to journalism, which puts a premium on really stylish writing, sharp commentary and covering politics over government. When she got assigned to the New York Times Washington bureau, the story goes, Dowd declared she was not going to spend her time covering those “dreary regulatory agencies”–or, presumably, going to hearings or reading GAO reports.
So yes, it’s good that the news about Walter Reed finally got out and that things are starting to change. But it would have been far better if the Walter Reed story had exploded two or three years ago, thousands of wounded soldiers earlier.