The articles on Walter Reed Army Medical Center that ran last week in both the Washington Post and the Army Times revealed a shameful reality awaiting wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. The stories, particularly those in the Post, with its wider circulation and influence, prompted calls for action from various sectors, including the military, the media, and politicians.
On Wednesday, the Army retaliated against not only those patients at Walter Reed who spoke to reporters, but against all of its patients, imposing a hospital-wide six o’clock wake up call and seven o’clock room inspection, according to a follow-up report in the Army Times. Those actions spoke a lot louder than the initial words from Army officials, who promised meaningful change for the wounded and maimed soldiers stuck in administrative purgatory.
But this latest attempt to manage the Walter Reed story isn’t the Army’s first; as noted in Howard Kurtz’s blog, when the Army realized a scathing story on conditions at the hospital was going to run in the Post — a story that included tales of moldy rooms, mouse droppings, and cockroaches — it launched a preemptive strike, organizing a press conference for the Post’s competitors. The Army promised lucrative information in exchange for an embargo on stories resulting from the press conference until after 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 24, the day the Post story was to appear online. The Army claimed this was a courtesy to the Post, but in essence it optimized the timing of the Army’s counterattack.
What the Army did not realize is that its phone call to competing news outlets tipped off the Army Times (which declined to attend the press conference) to the Post’s piece. The Army Times, a weekly owned by Gannett that covers the U.S Army, had its own piece in the works for months, about the quality of care at Walter Reed, and the unforgivable administrative delays in processing soldiers. It was scheduled to run a few weeks later, but when the Army Times editors learned of the Post article, they scrambled to match the competition and managed to get their story up on their Web site on Saturday the 24th, and then got the print version out on newsstands on Monday the 26th.
Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.
Consequently, the Army found itself facing an attack on two fronts, forced to answer not just the Post’s account, but the Army Times’s story as well. The spin strategy backfired, generating a cascade of secondary coverage in the mainstream media and the blogosphere, liberal and conservative — giving the story longer legs than it ever would have had if the Army had simply acknowledged the shortcomings at Walter Reed and promised to do better.