85 percent of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95 percent - Alex S. Jones, Losing the News
The Wall Street Journal last week dropped a searing three-part series that ended Saturday on how the Veterans Administration lobotomized at least 1,930 returning World War II veterans suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other mental illness that doctors just did not know how to treat.
“It’s just that we didn’t have anything else to do for them,” one retired doctor, now 90, is quoted as saying.
The series, by longtime Journal veteranf Michel M. Phillips, himself a war correspondent, is meticulously reported, makes use of a newly unearthed discovered trove of documentation, and is written with an understated elegance in the finest tradition of Journal “leders,” the longform innovation institutionalized by the great Bernard Kilgore in the 1940s and 1950s.
Deploying technology with great discretion, the digital version is flat gorgeous. No bling for bling’s sake here, the series integrates text and other elements seamlessly. An intriguing video introduction of musty files being wheeled through a library dissolves to a haunting photograph of an aging veteran above cleanly laid-out text. The first installment begins with a nightmarish scene of the same veteran as a 29-year-old man fighting off hospital orderlies come to take him away. Current and archival photographs, maps, and documents are deftly woven into the text to create a seamless, immersive experience. The first day ends with a full document of the period offering advice for the families of lobotomized veterans. The document was intended to be helpful but for us it is heartbreaking: “…you may find he does not act as he did before he got sick or before the operation.”
The second day adds to the public record of the now-discredited Walter J. Freeman, well-known for prostelytizing the benefits of lobotomies for civilians deemed mentally ill, and here shown also to be much sought-after by the VA. (Phillips is on Reddit AMA as we speak.)
If you missed that series it was probably because you were reading Andrea Elliott’s masterpiece—and that’s the only word for it— in the Times about the life of an unforgettable 11-year-old homeless girl, Dasani, and her family.
One of the great newspaper series of any kind that I can recall, it draws on a time-honored genre that traces its lineage to the late 19th century and Jacob Riis, and no doubt before, and is right in line with Alex Kotlowitz’s work in The Wall Street Journal in the 1980s that provided the basis for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991), set in Chicago’s housing projects. It also made me think of J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade In the Lives of Three American Families, mostly because of the incredible wealth of detail that only comes from spending massive, massive amounts of time with a subject. In the current case, a note at the end of the series tells us, it was the better part of a year for both Elliott and a photographer, Ruth Fremson.
One of the things newspapers do well when they’re working right is to connect people who would normally have nothing to do with each other. That is still true in the digital age, when “newspapers” is shorthand for legacy news organizations. In this case, the connection is made between the Times’ middle-class audience with a New York that feels as if it occupies a parallel universe. In one universe, bottled water is an afterthought. In another, it’s an aspiration.
I read the five-part series (yes, after balking at the length), well over 20,000 words, in two or three sittings, online and on my phone. It, too, makes use of digital advantages, the most important innovation being footnotes.