Hit or Miss

In separate investigations, CBS and The New York Times reveal the inner workings of Wounded Warrior Project

January 28, 2016

Social media users are breathing fire over several reports of lavish overhead spending and curious practices by the Wounded Warrior Project. The nonprofit, which raised more than $372 million last year, reportedly invests just 60 percent of its earnings into programs for veterans. And employees who question the nonprofit’s practices get the ax, according to two separate investigative projects, one from CBS News and the other by the The New York Times.

It’s a good day for journalism—and a hit in our book—when not one but two major news outlets use their resources to scrutinize what they say is the country’s largest and fastest-growing veterans charity. The benefits to both vets and donors are clear. What’s more, the news comes just as the Wounded Warrior Project steps into the national spotlight. Donald Trump is holding a rally tonight to benefit the charity amid his boycott of Fox News’ Republican presidential debate.

CBS News kicked off its three-part investigation of the Wounded Warrior Project on Tuesday night. The Times followed yesterday afternoon, with its own probe into the group’s money-driven culture, luxurious staff getaways, and aggressive treatment of outspoken employees. “While there was flash, there was less focus on the on-the-ground impact on lives,” Times reporter Dave Philipps tells CJR.

The Wounded Warrior Project helps US veterans work their way back into society through school, work, and other programs. The organization has promised to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for lifelong health care for veterans and treatment for mental disorders for soldiers of recent wars. Both news organizations offered up CEO Steven Nardizzi’s near-$500,000 salary as an example of the group’s lavish spending. The charity denies many of the charges and is waging an intense image campaign on Twitter.

But the reporting appears rock-solid. Both news organizations spent months on the story, rifling through public documents and speaking with key sources, inside the charity and out. They each interviewed roughly 50 current and former employees. And the journalists’ conclusions lineup: While the nonprofit says it devotes 80 percent of its fundraising to services, the news organizations found it was closer to 60 percent.

The Times coverage shares similarities with its exposé on digital mega-retailer Amazon, highlighting workplace troubles. Philipps describes one former employee of Wounded Warrior, who quit after seeing a child try to donate a piggy bank full of change to the organization. “It got under my skin, started eating at me,” Jesse Longoria told Philipps. “I knew where the money was going to. It seemed to me like it was a big lie.

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The newspaper’s Amazon stories came under fire for selectively presenting facts. Philipps cites that coverage as a source of inspiration, though he did not rely so heavily on anonymous sources. “I can’t tell you how many people I talked to were afraid to talk on the record,” he adds.

Journalists have examined the Wounded Warrior Project’s financial practices in the past. But this week’s stories offer the most wide-reaching glimpse into the organization.

That’s especially important today, as many viewers prepare to watch an event in which Trump, the GOP front-runner, will solicit donations for the Wounded Warrior Project. The Times and CBS News would seem to have moved quickly to take advantage of that peg, though both insist the event did not impact when their reports were published.

Trump’s rally is a self-imposed alternative to the Fox News debate. He bailed on the contest after the cable channel issued a press release he deemed taunting and refused to cut host Megyn Kelly from the show.

It’s clear Trump thinks, perhaps wisely, that he can erect a wall between himself and the media, avoiding Kelly’s questions and everyone else’s. But hopefully, the investigations by CBS and The Times will cause some viewers watching tonight to ask themselves about the integrity of the charity Trump is supporting.

If nothing else their work comes as a reminder that, when it comes to the media, you can run but you can’t hide.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha