Last month I argued on MSNBC.com that media coverage of the Anna Nicole Smith saga has been way over the top. I criticized not just the amount of media coverage, but the attention we gave to the bottom-feeders and leeches trying to get their “15 minutes” out of this tragedy. It’s easy for a media analyst to criticize the media. It’s what we do. But we also have a responsibility to recognize the media when it steps up and does something meaningful – something that makes a real difference in the lives of those who need our help. Such is the case involving the intense media coverage given to the deplorable conditions facing wounded American soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Beginning with the Washington Post (the online magazine Salon exposed serious problems at Walter Reed over a year ago, but was ignored) and later joined by other print and broadcast outlets, including NBC News and MSNBC, these horrific conditions – as well as unimaginable bureaucracy and red tape that interfered with outpatient medical treatment of the wounded – were brought to light. The cockroach and-rodent-infested, dank and disgraceful conditions at so-called Building 18 (a dilapidated, converted hotel with cheap stained carpets and walls with gaping holes adjacent to Walter Reed) were where most of the media attention was rightfully focused.
When the first media accounts hit, the military brass in charge tried to minimize and under-cut these efforts. One of the main culprits was Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, M.D., who formerly headed Walter Reed and was reinstated for a short 24 hour period last week. “I do not consider building 18 to be substandard,” he said. “We need to do a better job on some of these rooms and those of you [in the media] that got in today saw that we frankly have fixed all of those problems. They weren’t serious . . . I want to reset the thinking that while we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed.”
Kiley, who was subsequently dismissed from Walter Reed, was representative of the Pentagon’s failure to deal with a serious operational and public relations problem. The Pentagon made a huge mistake in initially denying what millions of viewers could easily see in television news accounts or hear from wounded veterans who gave first hand accounts of their shabby treatment. The Pentagon only made things worse by attempting to bar soldiers from speaking directly to the media. Imagine brave American military men and women who put their lives on the line to protect our democracy being denied their right of “free speech.”
The Pentagon also put a stop to filming at Walter Reed by CNN, Discovery Channel and MSNBC. They tried to expel the Washington Post and C-Span from an official military tour of the last-minute cosmetic “improvements” made at Building 18. (They apparently slapped on some fresh paint and patched up some holes where they could.) The Pentagon’s pathetic efforts to stonewall and squelch media coverage and criticism have only made this story bigger news. It’s so big now that Army Secretary Francis Harvey stepped down last Friday and a new leadership team is being installed at Walter Reed. President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have publicly blasted the Pentagon for their failure to lead at Walter Reed. Congressional hearings on Walter Reed began this week, and now the generals and military officials involved are tripping over themselves to “apologize” to wounded soldiers. Nice, but too little, way too late.
None of these much-needed changes at Walter Reed would ever have been possible were it not for the mainstream media. Our wounded soldiers have been suffering and ignored for too long. Many in the military knew it, but did nothing and tried to ignore initial media reports. It took intense media scrutiny and subsequent public outcry to shake things up.
The job at Walter Reed is just beginning, but at least the military brass that stood by and let our veterans suffer are getting the boot. There is real pressure to improve physical conditions and, more importantly, reduce the red tape, insensitivity and bureaucracy that disgracefully delay medical treatment of wounded soldiers. We need to keep a spotlight on Walter Reed until real change occurs, but when we in the media expose wrong doing, hold officials accountable and give a voice to the suffering, we are at our best. Media coverage of Walter Reed is a shining example of how good we can be and the difference we can make.
Write to Steve Adubato at SAdubato@aol.com