The Neutrality Maze
When there's one side to the story, what does it mean to stay impartial?
During his 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner speech, Stephen Colbert lauded Fox News. The faux-conservative commentator said the channel gave viewers "both sides of the story: the President's side and the Vice President's side." It was a great line, but as I would learn this year, journalism is a touch more complicated than comedy.
Every journalist who has been around the block knows that many stories don't have two sides. Some have four or five. A reporter examining the No Child Left Behind program would be irresponsible to quote only sources who were "for" and "against" the program. A reporter looking into coal mining needs to do more than interview industry executives and opponents. Topics that complicated deserve a range of voices.
Similarly, some topics only have one side. Science reporters who are documenting global warming can focus their attention on the melting ice shelf; they don't need to seek out the few remaining skeptics who say climate change isn't occurring. Political reporters who are profiling the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks can focus on al-Qaeda; they don't need to interview folks who say President Bush engineered 9/11 or that the attacks were a hoax. In both cases, the reporters are dealing with undisputed facts.
That was the situation I found myself in last year, after I uncovered something quite disturbing: Military doctors are purposely misdiagnosing soldiers wounded in Iraq, labeling them mentally ill in order to deny them medical care and disability pay.
The first case I documented was Specialist Jon Town, who was knocked unconscious by a rocket in Ramadi, went largely deaf due to the explosion, and was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds. But when it came time to discharge him, Town's doctor declared that he wasn't wounded at all, that his deafness was actually caused by a pre-existing "personality disorder." Discharging him that way, the Army prevented Town from collecting disability pay and receiving long-term medical care. One of the small-print provisions of a personality disorder discharge is that soldiers have to give back their signing bonuses for the years they are too wounded to serve. On his final day in uniform, Town was presented a bill for $3,000.
Following the Evidence
During 18 months of reporting, I uncovered dozens of cases like Town's. One soldier was punctured by grenade shrapnel during his second tour in Iraq; his wounds were blamed on personality disorder. Another soldier developed an inflamed uterus during service. Her Army doctor linked her profuse vaginal bleeding to personality disorder.
I interviewed injured soldiers, examined medical and discharge records, and spoke with officials who said a massive fraud was underway, one that was saving the military $12.5 billion in disability and medical care. Army doctors told me how wounded soldiers are routinely misdiagnosed at their hospitals. One said he was pressured by superiors to diagnose personality disorder in cases where soldiers were physically wounded or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.
When confronted with these statements and extensive documentation, no one from the military denied that these fraudulent discharges were occurring. The military even provided data showing that in the past seven years, over 22,500 soldiers have been discharged with personality disorder.
Where then was the "other side" to present? With only a one-sided story to work with, I did what any responsible journalist would do: I dug deeper, sought out more cases of wounded soldiers denied medical care and more data to document the breadth of the scandal.
The Nation released part one of my two-part series in April 2007. It set off a firestorm of outrage. Soon Specialist Town became a national figure, the human face of those 22,500 soldiers discharged and denied benefits. His story was picked up by the Army Times, Washington Post Radio, and ABC News's Bob Woodruff. It was dramatized on NBC's "Law & Order." And rock star Dave Matthews began discussing Town's plight at every stop in his spring concert series.
In the end, the series sparked the creation of bills in the House and Senate to halt the fraudulent discharges. President Bush signed a law requiring the Secretary of Defense to investigate these personality disorder dismissals and report to Congress. And I would face the ultimate test of my journalistic neutrality: I was called to testify before Congress.
Testifying Before Congress
Representative Bob Filner, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, called a hearing in July to investigate the fraudulent discharges. As the source of the information examined that day, I was called to sit before the panel, the camera, and a swath of reporters and answer questions.
It was an odd position to be in. People who were new to the story simply couldn't believe that the military was doing this and not denying it. Was I truly a neutral source, an unbiased reporter, when I did not present a second side? As a journalist, it was critical to me that I not be mistaken for an advocate.
That goal was complicated by two factors. First, as a citizen, I did feel a tug of sympathy for the injured soldiers who were denied care. Town's wounds made him too ill to work, and he had a wife and two young children to feed. After Chris Mosier was denied care, he returned home to Iowa, then shot himself. My feelings for them and their families I was prepared to keep private. Yet I knew, as well, that the magazine that published my series was famous for running columnists who did no such thing. I feared the congressmen at the hearing might mistake my apolitical reporting with the barbed editorials that surrounded it.
Of course, by the time the hearing arrived, I had appeared on dozens of radio programs, each time presenting a firm, impartial voice. But testifying, I knew, would be a special test. Members of Congress would press not just for facts but also for my personal opinions.
In the days leading up to the hearing, my nightmares teemed with Lou Dobbs, the financial newsman who slowly but surely morphed into a strident commentator, more in the O'Reilly vein than the Brokaw mold. I decided, then, to make a game plan: I would only say what Tim Russert would say. Russert, a journalistic North Star of mine, climbed to the top of political journalism by being direct and uncompromising, never softening his statements of the truth. But you never knew what his personal opinions were. Like Russert, I was determined to keep my views to myself. As I sat before that committee, before each statement would leave my mouth, it would first have to clear that one hurdle: Is this something Tim Russert would say? If the answer was no, I would rephrase, reorganize my thoughts for public consumption.
In the end, it all proved somewhat of a nonissue. Town testified before me and laid out his ordeal in gory detail: the rocket blast, the Purple Heart, the hearing problems, memory loss, the nonstop, stabbing headaches that have followed his traumatic brain injury, the move toward suicide before bouncing backâ€”enough to give the bipartisan panel a personal understanding of the challenges wounded soldiers face when they are denied care. When it was my turn before the microphone, I answered questions about the data I had gathered, introduced military documents I had uncovered, described interviews with Army officials who provided details about the personality disorder scam.
To present that elusive second side to the story, the House panel called on Colonel Bruce Crow, chief of Behavior Medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center and consultant to the Surgeon General of the Army. As expected, Crow didn't deny anything. If the military is cheating wounded soldiers out of benefits by purposely misdiagnosing them as mentally ill, said Crow, "this would be wrong." His words infuriated the chairman. "The first panel shocked me," said Filner, referring to Town's testimony. "You guys shocked me even more."
I never mentioned it to anyone, but I felt good about how that morning turned out. In my series and at the hearing, both sides of the story came out: the soldiers' side and the Army's side. They were essentially the same.
Stephen Colbert would have approved.
Joshua Kors is an investigative reporter in New York. For his work on the personality disorder scandal, he was awarded the George Polk Award, IRE Award, and National Headliner Award. He also won the National Magazine Award for Public Interest and was a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award and Harvard's Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. His series is available at JoshuaKors.com/military.