It began with a headline splashed atop the story on the front page of the February 18 Washington Post: “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility.”
In a powerful two-day series last week, the Post’s Dana Priest and Anne Hull reported that Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., the venerable hospital famed for treating U.S. presidents, had turned into a “messy bureaucratic battlefield” for hundreds of outpatient troops wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses” was the wrenching description in the opening paragraph.Just five days later, after taking a tour of Walter Reed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates left no doubt that the Post’s work had an impact. “Those responsible for having allowed this unacceptable situation to develop will indeed be held responsible,” the secretary said.
At a time when supporting the troops is the only common ground in the polarizing debate over Iraq, the Post investigation reverberated through the White House, Pentagon, and media. Picked up by everyone from cable hosts to network anchors, the story of the war on the homefront—dominated by the Walter Reed story—received its highest level of coverage of the year the week of February 18-23, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index.
The fifth biggest story of the week, (filling 5% of the overall newshole) the Iraq homefront generated the most attention on the broadcast network news, where it made up fully 10% of the airtime, much of it crediting the Post.
If the Walter Reed expose is a classic example of investigative journalism influencing the media agenda, another big story was fueled by the bizarre, even clownish, behavior of a Florida judge on TV.
As has been the case ever since Anna Nicole Smith’s sudden death on February 8, the media—especially cable news—continued their breathless fascination with the life and legal tangles of the troubled Playmate/heiress.
The Smith tabloid tale filled 10% of the overall newshole, (up from 6% the previous week) and was the third-biggest story. It finished just behind the debate over Iraq policy (the second biggest story at 11%).
Coverage of the 2008 presidential race was the top story overall, at 12%, fueled by a dustup between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over remarks by big Democratic donor David Geffen.
PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)
Even with all the play given to the Walter Reed/Iraq homefront story last week, two other Iraq-related topics generated more coverage. The policy debate story, which commanded the most attention on radio (21%), was driven by Britain’s announcement that it would withdraw 1,600 of its roughly 7,000 troops in Iraq.
The situation inside Iraq itself was the fourth biggest story overall at 9%. The coverage was punctuated by the news that Britain’s Prince Harry was heading to Iraq and by reports that insurgents were increasing the lethality of their attacks with chlorine bombs. Events in Iraq were even bigger news online, leading the sector and making up 17% of the newshole.
But it was the intensity and immediacy of the response to the Post’s digging that reshaped the news agenda to the question of medical care of troops at home last week.
Interviewed on the February 19 edition of PBS’s “NewsHour,” Dana Priest said the reporting team, which spent more than four months on the story, was stunned by the conditions they found. “When we started hearing these stories of neglect, and in some cases indifference, it was unbelievable,” she said.
A day later, one of the first questions at a briefing by White House press secretary Tony Snow was whether the President knew of the situation at Walter Reed before the Post stories.
“I don't know exactly where he learned it,” said a somewhat defensive Snow, “but I can tell you that we believe that they [wounded veterans] deserve better.”
On February 21, CNN’s Lou Dobbs aired an interview in which the top Army commander at Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, admitted he was unaware of the problems documented by the Post and took full responsibility.
“It was obviously a failure on my part to reach down and touch those soldiers and find out directly from them,” Weightman said.
At the end of week, Brian Williams opened his February 23 newscast by declaring, in urgent tones: “The Secretary of Defense says what he saw today at Walter Reed is unacceptable for American war veterans and he’s promising change.”
All in all, a pretty quick trip from the front page of the Post to the front burner at the Pentagon.
Pointed criticism of the Pentagon also helped elevate the 2008 White House derby to the biggest overall story last week, the second time that has happened this year. Republican John McCain’s statement during a South Carolina campaign stop that “I think that Donald Rumsfeld will go down as one of the worst secretaries of defense in history,” added flavor to the coverage and made headlines.
But more attention was paid to something the political press corps may have been waiting for—a skirmish between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (And this one was even filled with Hollywood intrigue.) The story erupted after producer David Geffen—a former supporter of the Clintons who is now with Obama—gave an interview to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd critical of the Clintons’ character. When Hillary Clinton's campaign asked Obama to disavow Mr. Geffen, Obama's campaign snapped back with a definite no.
The press played on the dynamics of story lines it had already laid down—was Hillary going to be too tough, was Obama ready for the big time.
In it front page story on February 22, the New York Times seemed fascinated by “a remarkably caustic exchange between the Clinton and Obama campaigns that highlighted the sensitivity in the Clinton camp to Mr. Obama’s rapid rise as a rival and his positioning as a fresh face unburdened by the baggage borne by Mrs. Clinton, the junior senator from New York.”
And we’ve still got 20 months to Election Day.
By then, perhaps the Anna Nicole Smith saga, and all its odd subplots, will have played out.
Last week, Smith wasn’t even the main attraction as the disposition of her body was argued about in a Broward County courtroom. Instead, Judge Larry Seidlin was the latest curiosity. His antics became a major topic for the cable TV universe that devoted more than a quarter (26%) of its air time to the Smith case. (In perhaps his most memorable moment, Seidlin sobbed as he was awarding custody of Smith’s body to the guardian of her five-month-old daughter.)
Cable coverage continued to evince both fascination and disgust with the story, which has played to big numbers. One host even thought the judge’s weird performance was, in its own way, fitting.
After airing a photo of Seidlin along with the caption “Court Jester?” MSNBC prime-time host Joe Scarborough described him as “an emotionally challenged judge,” whose courtroom performance “was just a perfect ending to a tawdry tale of sex, drugs and marrying old.”
Mark Jurkowitz of PEJ
Note: Due to a technical error in recording, a Friday daytime program on CNN replaced the MSNBC daytime program that was supposed to be rotated into this week's sample.