Reporting 101

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Good reporters are like good detectives. What they find out will occasionally land someone in jail, or expose a scandal that leads to major changes for the good.

The Washington Post's stories on the appalling conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have already prompted Congressional investigations and the firing of several top military officials.

The stories are an example of "plain old gumshoe on-the-record reporting that often goes unrecognized in this high-tech age," as Deborah Howell, The Post's ombudsman, puts it in her latest column.

"The reporting of the dreadful conditions suffered by wounded Iraq war veterans brought a stream of praise, even from the paper's frequent critics," Howell says. "Important stories often come from strangers who have seen injustice up close but do not know what to do about it. That's what started The Post's investigation: A person who knew the concerns of soldiers and family members was horrified at how they were living and being treated."

The call went to Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her reporting on the CIA's secret prisons overseas, in which torture was common. Priest hooked up with her colleague Anne Hull, and they found not only highly unsanitary conditions at Walter Reed but a "seeming disregard for the problems the soldiers had brought back from Iraq."

Each time she left the hospital, Priest told Howell, "I went through stages of outrage and sadness that were very motivating. These soldiers loved the military and were so angry" at their treatment.

"It was Reporting 101," said Anne Hull, who even spent a night on the floor of one soldier's room.

"No one was listening to them," Hull said. "We were willing to listen."

This morning, on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, Priest said she's been deluged with calls and e-mails from people recounting similar tales of neglect in other military facilities.

Priest and Hull wrote in yesterday's Washington Post of "a vast outpouring" of stories of substandard care that have "flooded in from soldiers, their family members, veterans, doctors and nurses."

"They describe depressing living conditions for outpatients at other military bases around the country, from Fort Lewis in Washington state to Fort Dix in New Jersey. They tell stories... of callous responses to combat stress and a system ill-equipped to handle another generation of psychologically scarred vets."

The Post's stories have forced a national debate, the paper says: "Wrenching questions have dominated blogs, talk shows, editorial cartoons, VFW spaghetti suppers and the solitary late nights of soldiers and former soldiers who fire off e-mails to reporters, members of Congress and the White House, looking, finally, for attention and solutions."

Not surprisingly, the Army brass is not thrilled with the coverage.

Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who commanded Walter Reed for two years, until 2004, called The Post's investigation "yellow journalism at its worst." He's the guy who took no action when informed that a soldier was sleeping in his own urine and who was brought in again last week to manage the scandal before being fired all over again.

It was on Kiley's watch that the "shabby treatment of outpatient vets became standard practice," writes The Post 's Eugene Robinson in a column about the Bush administration's usual "nonchalance about its most grievous transgressions."

"It's hard to believe," Robinson writes, "but the officials who presided over a terrible failure of government are actually being held accountable." Normally, he says, it's "awfully difficult to get fired by this administration for failing to do your job."

On CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday, Dana Priest said, "One of the things we do as journalists is we try to truth-squad what our officials are saying." "And our officials were saying, everything is OK, everybody is treating these guys right. And so I was angry at the hypocrisy."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan