Friday, January 30, 2009

What gets covered, what doesn't

Two West Point cadets have committed suicide since December and two others attempted suicide in the past two weeks, prompting the military academy's leaders to summon an Army surgeon general's suicide team to the campus today to investigate the causes.
The suicides are the first since at least 2005. The academy is passing out prevention cards, putting up posters and reviewing its procedures, and it has ordered fresh suicide-prevention training to be completed by today, said Col. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

The above is the opening to Ann Scott Tyson's "Military Investigates West Point Suicides: Deaths Come as Overall Army Rate Jumps" (Washington Post) and, as usual, she finds a way into the story that others miss. But on this topic (military suicides), let's note a few things right off the bat. "Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq." That's US House Rep Jane Harman. But all the outlets didn't rush to cover that topic, they didn't even cover the hearing Wednesday on sexual assault in the military.

It wasn't due to lack of reporters. A number of outlets had press at the hearing. But it wasn't 'judged' what? Important? Universal?

When it largely effects women -- the majority of the US population -- it gets pushed aside. When it can be seen as effecting mainly men -- and let's be very clear that the bulk of the suicides covered by the press have been men (women in the military have committed suicide and tried to commit it -- that just hasn't been 'news' -- an exception to that is Greg Mitchell who actually has reported on female military suicides).

So there are two at-risk categories this week. (We'll get back to 'this week.') One is women serving -- who are at risk of sexual assault and then at risk of a system that refuses to treat the survivor or the issue as is needed. The other is what is seen as male suicides -- and we should further point out that the press has mainly focused on the suicides of the 'able bodied' (meaning those who have physical injuries may not make the best poster boy for the story apparently). So we have the image of the corn fed, husky boy with the pearly whites and a nation collectively grips its sides and rocks back and forth moaning, "Why! Oh why!"

That's what the coverage indicates. That's where Americans are supposed to focus their attention and only there. Military sexual assault is of little to no interest to the press.

A working feminist movement would be demanding not only answers for why that is but demanding changes in the coverage.

This is US House Rep Loretta Sanchez speaking at Wednesday's hearing:

Thank you, Madame Chair and thank you to all the panel for being here. I have just one question because in the 12 years that I have been on this committee and in the Congress, we've had this problem and I believe it is a major problem. When we are a volunteer force in particular and when we are looking at 50% of Americans being women and the fact that we need to draw the talents from that pool just as we do from the men. And I believe women should be in the military. And that this problem is continuing to happen and has for so many years . . . drives me crazy. We were able to pass, as you know, a new UCMJ section that dealt with this and I hear back from the prosecutors that they love using this new law, that they are more effectively using it to get the prosecutions that they need. But you know I've always said that there are three things that we need to do. One, change the culture. Two, change the law so that we do prosecute and we can prosecute. And three, work well with those who, the victims who have had this happen and make sure that they don't lose their lives. So let's go back to the first one: Change the culture. Because this shouldn't be happening at all. I've zero tolerance for this. And it seems to me that no matter what we try, no matter how many rules we put on and how many administrative issues and everything, it all comes down to how the top is handling this. How the commander handles this, where ever it is, whether it's Iraq or the Air Force Academy or whether it's a base in Camp Pendleton in California or where ever it might be, that it's really about how the chain of command deals with this. And they don't seem to deal with this very well. And so my question is to Ms. Watterson who so bravely came forward today and I thank you for that because I, believe it or not, I personally know how difficult it is. Uhm. It's been my contention that the only way we're going to make the command understand how important this issue is is that it's actually a section on every promotion that they receive. That in order for them to be promoted, they have to deal with, "What did you do about this? How much of this has happened under you? How come you were ineffective about this?" And that they don't get promoted if they don't take this seriously. Now that runs counter to so many people who say "Oh, we're just care about making fighting machines." Ms. Watterson, do you think that if these people in command that you go to thought that if they didn't handle this correctly or didn't make an attempt to handle it, if they thought they would lose their ability to be promoted, that they might have taken this more seriously for you?

And that's the question that unnerved the military witnesses. (Laura Watterson, a survivor, was not unnerved by it. She agreed with Sanchez that it was exactly what was needed to ensure the military took the problem seriously and began addressing it.) But here's a question: What has to be done to get the press to take it seriously?

Lizette Alvarez (New York Times) does not find the unique way in that Ann did and Alvarez' article reads like a report on the study:

The Army did not identify a specific reason for the increase, but officials said 15-month deployments to war zones played a role. These deployments, which have allowed for little time away from the battlefield, have contributed to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, alcohol abuse and family problems. Seven suicides took place in Afghanistan and 31 in Iraq.

That is especially surprising since Alvarez has owned this beat for some time and one would have thought she would have opened with an example she'd either explored recently or had just turned up. At least her article is well written. No, they can't all make that claim. For example, Julian E. Barnes and Jia-Rui Chong "Army sees sharp rise in suicide rate" (Los Angeles Times) is lifeless:

The suicide rate among Army soldiers reached its highest level in three decades in 2008, military officials said Thursday in a report that pointed to the inadequacy of anti-suicide efforts undertaken in recent years.

We didn't ignore the topic. We treated it as a brief sentence in yesterday's snapshot and the reason for that is this story already played out this month. A report prompted the new round of coverage. But, yes, the rise in military suicides was noted at the start of the month in a round of stories. (And we noted the earlier round this month in the snapshots at the start of January.) The story that the press didn't want to explore was military sexual assault. Oh well, maybe a reporter can write up a story and then battle for months before it is finally included in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yeah, that's what it took. A long, long battle. It's really past time that publishers and editors had to start explaining why they regularly refuse to cover the issue. It's not that they don't have reports filed, it's that they refuse to put them into print. Is it too 'yucky,' too 'gross'? Well, golly, Jill, you made your name co-writing a book on a topic some found to be 'yucky' and 'gross' (sexual harassment in the workforce) so one would expect you would be using your position to strongly advocate for these stories. Of course, the reality is your refuse to do that.

And it never had to be an either/or. Both stories could have been covered and there are links between the two.

The Army reported Thursday that at least 128 soldiers took their lives last year - the most since they started keeping records, three decades ago. But sometimes soldiers direct their anger at others - cases of assault against wives and girlfriends are on the rise, and critics say the army is not doing enough about it. CBS News anchor Katie Couric reports in a CBS News investigation that the results can be tragic.

That's the text intro to the report Couric filed for The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric yesterday (link has text and video) on Sgt. James Pitts:

"The only thing you could predict was that you were gonna get attacked," he said. "The worst part of it was ... smelling the dead bodies, because it lingers forever."
The terrifying images began to take a toll.
Pitts began abusing prescription drugs as a way to escape, and reached out to his command for help. He says they did nothing.
When it was time to come home, he hoped the joy of seeing his wife and 9-year-old son would make everything okay.
"I'm just overwhelmed," Tara Pitts, James' wife, said at the time. "Excited and relieved."

[If you missed Wednesday's Congressional hearing, it's covered in Wednesday's "Iraq snapshot," Kat's "When I tried to smoke a banana," Thursday's "Iraq snapshot," Ruth's "Laura Watterson's testimony and its meaning" and Kat's "Laura Watterson's testimony."]

Public broadcasting notes. Bill Moyers Journal features Marilyn Young who always (to date, anyway) has something interesting worth hearing. The program airs on PBS and begins airing tonight in many markets -- check local listings on this and other PBS programs all of which begin airing tonight in many PBS markets. NOW on PBS continues it's must-watch tradition and offers:

President Obama has issued a scathing critique of Wall Street following news that Wall Street employees were paid more than $18 billion in bonuses last year as the financial sector melted down. What should his administration do to crack down on banks, given that some experts are suggesting an additional $1 trillion to $2 trillion may be needed to bail them out?
This week, David Brancaccio sits down with financial reporter Bethany McLean -- who broke the Enron story -- to look at options on the table for stabilizing the country's financial system. Is nationalizing our banks a viable solution?
Almost everyone agrees that our banks need federal money to avoid even more calamity, but how much is too much, and who's watching how they spend it?

And then there's Gwen. Washington Week features Gwen, Greg Ip (The Economist), John Dickerson (Slate), Alexis Simendinger (National Journal) and Doyle McManus (Los Angeles Times). It would be really great if some of the feminist 'leaders' applauding Gwen in the lead-up to the vice presidential debate found a moment or two to notice that Gwen has four guests every week and has a really hard time 'finding' two women worthy of gas baggery. It would be really good if PBS would begin tracking that because the CPB has noticed and is wondering if the mandate for diversity is just another thing overpaid hosts are now wiping their asses with?

And on broadcast TV (CBS) Sunday, no 60 Minutes:

60 Minutes Pre-empted Feb. 1
Sunday’s 60 Minutes will be pre-empted for the CBS News special CBS REPORTS: "The Road to the White House," a chronicle of Barack Obama’s historic journey to the presidency reported by Steve Kroft.

We return with an all-new edition of 60 Minutes on Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. ET/PT. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger, the hero pilot of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, and his entire crew, will appear on 60 Minutes in their first interviews since the extraordinary water landing last week on the Hudson River in New York City. Katie Couric reports, Sunday, Feb. 8.
60 Minutes Update
Bank Of America
Despite facing huge losses and government bailouts, Wall Street financial companies handed out an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for 2008, which is about the same level as 2004 when the Dow Jones industrial average was above 10,000 points. Now, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating Merrill Lynch for the timing of awarding executive bonuses prior to its formal acquisition by Bank of America. In October 2008, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis told Lesley Stahl that he thought executives on Wall Street have been paid too much money. | Video

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