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From AJR,   April/May 2007  issue

Slow to React   

Should the New York Times have jumped on the Walter Reed story much more quickly?


By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     

When stories that revealed shocking problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center first started appearing in the Washington Post in February, it didn't take long for the reaction--anger, disgust, horror--to start pouring in.

Perhaps it was a confluence of events, including the steady drumbeat of negative news about Iraq. And likely the public, which polls show is increasingly doubtful about the war, was simply ready for more critical stories about the military, as long as they didn't criticize soldiers.

Whatever the cause, many in the news media quickly embraced the Post's series. Soon after the first installment was published on Sunday, February 18, print and broadcast outlets across the country were chasing it; at least one, "NBC Nightly News," highlighted the upcoming series, which appeared in the Post's bulldog edition, on February 17. Other major broadcasters, including ABC, CBS, CNN and National Public Radio, promptly reported it as well. The Los Angeles Times ran its own, shorter version the same day the Post series began, crediting the Post. Across the country, other newspapers ran Walter Reed stories within a few days. New York's Daily News, for example, conducted its own interviews with Army officials and soldiers; others, like the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan, wrote of the rapid political fallout and the calls for formal investigation. The St. Petersburg Times published a Post story on its front page.

One of the places that seemed strangely subdued, though, was the New York Times. Between February 18 and March 1, the day that Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman was fired as commander of Walter Reed, the Times published only one editorial (February 23) and one staff-written news story (February 24, page A10), both citing the Post. To some people, it seemed odd that a major national newspaper would not weigh in more forcefully, particularly when the Post stories triggered an immediate outcry from high-ranking politicians demanding answers and action.

"Even by the Times' not-invented-here standards, the silence on this particular story was more deafening than usual," says Susan E. Tifft, a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University and coauthor of a book on the Times' Ochs-Sulzberger dynasty. "If you were a reader who saw only the Times and read or listened or watched nothing else, you would never have known there was an uproar until the first official got fired."

Following up on a competitor's scoop--and worse, acknowledging it as someone else's achievement--is not a task relished by journalists. But should the Times rethink its hands-off posture, and fill those gaps? Should it have done more, and sooner?

"Looking back, we should have followed the Walter Reed story more quickly," Suzanne Daley, the Times' national editor, wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "We are hardly adverse to giving credit to other organizations for good scoops, which this certainly was. But clearly the Washington Post does not need 'the strong voice' of the New York Times, to use your words. And journalism may be best served if we all pursue our own enterprise."

But to Edward Wasserman, the Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the New York Times is not just any paper, and needs to understand and acknowledge its special role.

"The Times is so uniquely powerful that...if for reasons of competitive embarrassment" it doesn't fully cover an important story, "we really feel that it is an injury--that it is a harm done to the national agenda," he says.

In this case, the Post did such a good job on the Walter Reed story, "they really did leave a scorched earth there" in terms of someone else following it, Wasserman says. So he thinks it's at least a little unfair to expect the Times to be fully up to speed and compete with the Post on this story in the short term. But he says the problems at Walter Reed and other government hospitals beg for more than one paper to follow up in the longer term: "You do your best to advance the story, to widen and deepen it."

He adds: "They can't afford to be embarrassed or sorry. It goes with the territory, if you're going to be the biggest and most influential paper in the country."

On March 11, the Times' public editor, Byron Calame, wrote in his column that readers "have every right to be angry about The Times's slowness in telling them about the compelling news." Calame quoted from an e-mail sent to him by Executive Editor Bill Keller, who acknowledged that the Times "could have been quicker in responding to the Post's stories."

Keller's e-mail, which the Times later provided to AJR, says the Post's work was "hard reporting to match," and the Times' Pentagon reporters had been working on other stories at the time. Calame faulted that response, writing, "had editors been determined to give readers a glimpse inside Building 18, seeking interviews with the families of past and present outpatients would seem to have been a logical step--and an assignment almost any Times reporter could have handled... Excessive pride, I believe, is the fundamental problem."

Keller wrote that it wasn't just pride but also the need to verify secondhand information. Calame agreed this was a legitimate concern, but only to a point. The Times could link to "vital exclusives in competing publications," as well as use "solidly reported wire stories," he wrote.

The L.A. Times' February 18 story on Walter Reed was fleshed out another way: It was based on a briefing that Weightman conducted on February 16 for what the newspaper described as "a small group of reporters." Army spokesman Col. Dan Baggio says he scheduled the briefing because the Army knew the Post series was about to run and wanted to explain its side to other members of the media. The Post was not invited. Neither was the New York Times.

Baggio says that in retrospect, he wishes he had invited the Times but that it was not left out intentionally. He says he often schedules similar meetings with small groups of reporters. "We have a moral responsibility to tell our story to the public...these [patients] are my brothers and sisters out there," he says.

One thing is for sure: The added stature of newspapers such as the Times and the Post does make a difference in the reaction their spotlight generates. When they talk, people listen. It's a fact of life that can be frustrating for other journalists. Mark Benjamin, a national correspondent for Salon, wrote several powerful stories about outpatient neglect at Walter Reed and other government hospitals as far back as fall 2003--but he didn't exactly get a ticker-tape parade. Instead, "I got flooded with e-mails" calling him a communist and a pinko after he wrote about squalor at hospitals in Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Fort Knox, Kentucky. "They said I was a liar," he says.

Benjamin hopes that more journalists--be they from the Post, the Times or other news organizations--will continue writing about problems at Walter Reed and elsewhere. "I think that the American public was not ready to read these bad news stories," he says. "Now they are."

As to the Times' handling of this series, Calame concluded: "The reality is that when significant news breaks--even in the form of an exclusive in a competing publication--The Times must be committed to getting on the story. Anything less seriously damages the paper's value to readers."