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Can We Keep Scandal Fatigue From Thwarting Reform?
(Photo: The White House / Flickr)

Can We Keep Scandal Fatigue From Thwarting Reform?

(Photo: The White House / Flickr)

Part of the Series

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Every morning, you, as a reader, get up and read more stories than you like about the dysfunction and fraud that is taking place in our world, our government and in our national institutions. And every day, the investigative journalists who have written these stories have put themselves on the line to expose these scandals, including some that just seem to go on and on no matter what they expose.

But after this hair-raising election, and as we are supposed to be entering a short season of peace, how do we keep our heads and our hearts from avoiding or rejecting reporting and reading these scandals – especially when both the writers and the readers often feel helpless to change any of it?

This is a dilemma that I have lived with for over 30 years – the struggle against scandal fatigue in my daily job and concern that the readers of my stories will lose heart that anything can change. In this column, I will explore how and why several investigative journalists, including myself, keep doing this work and, if I get enough feedback from you, the readers of these stories, I will write another column on how our work affects you, the reader, and whether you think it can do any good.

A good place to start looking at investigative journalists doing this job is right here at Truthout. Jason Leopold, our lead investigative reporter, has done many stories in the last ten years for Truthout. However, there is one story that he has put his heart and soul into: the imprisonment and abuse of the prisoners at Guantanamo federal prison. Our country has been imprisoning culpable and innocent prisoners for ten years under very little scrutiny, and Jason has been painstakingly digging out the facts for Truthout readers. He has looked at the this story on the macro level, at the number of prisoners who have had no due process and little access to the outside world, and at the heart-breaking micro level of the story, following and recently reporting on the senseless imprisonment and death of Guantanamo prisoner Adnan Latif.

Jason has spent ten years on the Guantanamo story, which included submitting numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to find out the conditions and status of these prisoners and interviewing prisoners who actually made it out of Guantanamo. He has been the reporter who has doggedly kept this story going.

That is the methodical part of his investigation and his determination to use the system and sources to dig out everything about this secret prison. Much of the public does not want to read about it or to believe that our country and we, as citizens of this country, have tolerated this cruelty and injustice in our name. But there is a part of this story that, as I have seen in my own work, takes a piece of soul out of you as you work to tell the story and get the reader to understand what is going on beyond the numbers and the heavily redacted, blacked out FOIA documents.

As part of his reporting, Jason had to talk to Latif’s 14-year-old son, who thought that his father – a man whom he had not seen since a toddler – might actually come home. Jason actually thought that through his reporting and the system, Latif might get released, because even the government agreed that he should not be there. But instead, Jason found himself talking long distance to Yemen to a deeply anguished boy about the tragedy of his father’s death. Jason has a young son himself, and even though he is a disciplined journalist, moments like these are soul-crushing. But Jason told me that he knew he had to make the painful call to get the reader to understand that the people in this prison we support are not the monolithic group of “them,” the people bent on attacking us at home and around the world, but real people, many of whom have actually been cleared for release, but remain stuck in a secret, quagmired bureaucracy.

Jason’s Guantanamo stories have had a decent following on Truthout’s web site, as we know from looking at the numbers on our readers’ hits and Facebook likes for each of our stories, and recently, his work on Latif’s cause of death resulted in a few stories in the mainstream press, including The New York Times and Reuters. But his exclusive, “deep-dive” reporting on this often doesn’t go far because it is too depressing for readers. Have you seen one of his many stories on Guantanamo and thought to yourself that you just can’t read another downer story on the travesty that was started by the Bush administration but still lingers on into the second Obama administration? Is it too hard to frequently be reminded of what is going on in your name with your tax dollars when you feel helpless to change? I know that I have had those thoughts, even though I, too, am an investigative reporter who has to do soul-crushing work to get a story out.

I asked Jason how he feels about this, his version of scandal fatigue, and how he keeps writing about this wretched story. He told me that he is frustrated to be doing this amount of exclusive FOIA and sources work to see it appear on Truthout and occasionally in the mainstream press for a brief blip of exposure only. He understands that it is depressing for the readers, but he also thinks that reading this information on the extreme actions of our government is part of the duty and the price of living in a democracy. He knows that the long-term reform of the Guantanamo prison is slow, but there are several immediate and daily things that keep him at it.

He is deeply devoted to work for justice and hates the hypocrisy that he sees when the United States sanctimoniously tut-tuts other countries’ human rights abuses while Guantanamo continues to exist for ten years and counting. He also believes that it is very important for someone to dig deep into this scandal and make a historic record, even if the present public finds it too painful to read and do something about it. And he has what I see in every successful investigative reporter: the love of the hunt for facts and sources.

But Jason has left a piece of himself in all of these stories that he will never get back, and it is not easy to keep putting yourself out there for reporting that may not bear fruit for many years.

Although most of my career has been going after military fraud and abuse, I did a four-year stint on a subject that also took a piece of my soul. I spent years looking into nursing home abuse to gather information for federal whistleblower cases showing that our Medicare and Medicaid money was fraudulently used to increase profits for nursing home chains while those chains provided horrid care, including skimping on food and water for the nursing home residents. Unlike my military investigations, which mainly involved documentation and working with inside sources, I actually did undercover work at these nursing homes. Since I was the only person on the investigative team who looked like a “soccer mom” who should be at a nursing home in the middle of the day, I would walk into these homes acting like I belonged there, walk around looking at how the home was breaking federal laws and regulations, talk into a recorder mike I had on my shoulder to record details of what I was seeing, talk to as many residents as I could, and walk out.

There was a major methodical side to these undercover visits because I was looking for violations, but part of the work included talking to residents, which helped with my fact-finding but also served as a cover to make it look like I was visiting there. I guess I was good at it, because after over 200 visits to nursing homes nationwide, I was asked to leave only once.

But is also took its toll on my psyche to see people who could no longer help themselves suffering so much. The heartbreaking lack of care included residents sitting in urine and feces for hours, literally dying for a drink and more food, while each harried nursing assistant tried to take care of the equivalent of 15 or more newborns and toddlers, only these patients were adult-sized. The understaffing of these facilities was chronic while the corporate profits soared. I would talk and quickly befriend some of the more lucid residents, who, when I left, would often beg me to take them with me. On more than one occasion, I would have to wrench the grip of a desperate resident who wanted to go with me, and I especially remember one beautiful older woman promising me that she would scrub my floors on her hands and knees if I would just take her home with me.

After months of these investigations, I would have to tell our group that I needed a break for a month from going into these facilities to recover mentally from what I was seeing. This work really defined soul-crushing investigating, and it was schizophrenic to be in the madhouse of these homes, see the abuse, and then walk out the door to nicely manicured suburbs where people drove or walked past these facilities not knowing of the physical and mental human carnage that was being done behind those doors.

The work did lead to successful lawsuits to recover money for the federal government, exposure in the mainstream media and serious Congressional hearings. At the time, I wondered, after the interest faded in the outrage – as it always does – if we made any long-term effect for all the pieces of my heart I left in each one of those homes. Only later did I see what we were hearing: that because of the exposures of the horror stories, the number of people putting their loved ones in these homes was dropping and the federal government changed its rules to fund more home care. It has been around 15 years since I was involved in this work day-to-day, but I am relieved to see that nursing home admissions have continued to drop to this very day, and I know that I did have some effect on that. And I would do it again, even with the toll on me, because the people in those buildings were suffering much more than I ever did. But it was hard and emotionally exhausting.

I found that the news media was very interested in the individual horror stories but didn’t dive deep into the institutional flaws of having for-profit organizations take care of helpless people while cutting corners for their stockholders’ profit. We reporters can make it very personal by highlighting an individual who is suffering and the public can respond, but the institutional reforms and deep-dive digging to expose it often falls by the wayside with the mainstream media and the reading public.

I returned to exposing fraud in the Pentagon for the next 11 years, and I find that much of what I exposed and the subsequent reforms have been deformed by this powerful bureaucracy, ironically with most of the rollbacks happening during the Clinton years. But like Sisyphus, I have volunteered to continue to push the rock up this Pentagonal hill. I keep finding scandals with companies and weapons that I looked at in my youth and have wondered if all of these scandals and abuse will actually outlive me. Take a look at the picture above of President Obama being briefed by Leon Panetta at a recent cabinet meeting. His face tells it all: almost all news about the Pentagon is bad, frustrating and maddening, especially while military officials scream that they cannot survive reasonable cuts.

So to address scandal fatigue in this work on the giant military-industrial complex, I interviewed a reporter friend who has worked on this as long as I have. Mark Thompson, who has been a Time Magazine investigative reporter since 1994, started investigating the Pentagon around 30 years ago. Early in his career, he won a Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for exposing a fatal tilt-rotor problem with military Bell helicopters which killed almost 250 people while the company and factions in the Pentagon covered it up. His victory there was that the helicopters were redesigned to fix the problem. Since then, he has daily toiled away at this large bureaucracy, so I called him up and asked him how he deals with it.

He said that democracy was messy, and that about a third of the Pentagon was there because Congress wanted in there. He also said that while we always need to keep fighting and exposing it, Pentagon waste, fraud and abuse was the “white noise” of the Pentagon: planes that aren’t needed and bases that are useless. He said that because we do have a democracy, we will have this messy waste because government is not like a corporation with a CEO who can just fire people and wipe out waste without any concerns for the pet programs of the Congress.

That said, Mark believes that you just have to keep at it exposing the rest. He said that the people who exploit the Pentagon system thrive in chaos and obstruction to the facts and wring out every drop they can in this democratic system. He said that the Pentagon is like an iceberg and our work to expose the problems are the size of ice cubes. He agrees that occasionally our investigative work does break through to the public where they can understand it – like my work in the 1980s exposing overpricing of weapons through overpriced hammers and coffee brewers, or the most recent Petraeus scandal, which, while not exposing the disconcerting strategic work of our generals, highlights their pampered and cloistered lifestyle. He also said that he is still constantly looking for scandals that directly affect the troops, such as lack of body armor and weapons that don’t work. Exposing the problems with the Pentagon has become much easier for him since Time magazine gave him a blog where he can regularly post information instead of trying to put it all into the few exposé stories he used to do each year.

Mark thought the Pentagon would go through a real change when the cold war ended, but has learned that while the public often sees the Pentagon as a monolith, it is really groups of people in bureaucracies and services that compete for attention and funding just like neighborhoods, and many are willing to rat out the other hoods’ waste and fraud. He says that he keeps working on it as his life’s career because it is frustrating but fascinating to learn about and challenging to investigate. Mark is very important to keeping democracy in this bureaucracy because he has the corporate, long-term knowledge of what has gone on before and he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time he finds a new scandal. Like me, he recognizes that investigating the Pentagon often involves using pattern recognition to know what they are doing and how they will cover it up. It is a maddening place that needs more institutional rather than individual exposés, and it is our challenge to do it in a way the public can understand.

I have taken you into the hearts and minds of the investigative reporters who do this work so you can read about it every day. It can be very maddening and disheartening, and you may have scandal fatigue because you believe that there is nothing you can do about it, so you may skip the story. But therein lies the rub. Truthout is exceptional, in my opinion, at writing the hard and necessary stories that many others in the media don’t want or don’t have the knowledge to investigate. Truthout strictly does not take outside advertising and mainly funds itself with reader contributions. If you don’t read the article, we don’t get the hit or the Facebook like. We believe all the articles we publish are important for the citizen-reader – even (especially) when they are depressing, but Truthout, with its dependence on readers, cannot exist by publishing only stories readers do not also find compelling.

I do often hear from readers and others that my work is important, but what can be done? The standard answer is to send the article and your outrage to your members of Congress. Believe it or not, that can work in many circumstances; Congressional staffers tell me that even ten emails on the same subject get attention. But our exposés would get even more attention if our readers would send them to more mainstream media that may not know about the subjects and would actually do more work to expand Truthout’s reporting and get it in front of more readers and viewers. That happened with Jason’s story that went to the New York Times. I wonder what would happen if, say, 20 of you or more would link our depressing-but-necessary articles to outlets that are still open to our subjects, but reach beyond our well-educated and socially responsible readers. Do you think we would catch a producer’s attention if one of my Pentagon exposés, or Mike Ludwig’s local fracking stories, or Jason’s mind-boggling stories on Guantanamo would show up 20-plus times in Rachel Maddow’s, Ed Schultz’s, Lawrence O’Donnell’s or Fareed Zakaria’s blogs? These are shows that often do take the time to explain the background of horrible stories instead of just hyping the geez-whiz parts of the stories into one-day wonders. I would love to find out if there are enough readers who want to see if they can make a difference with the stories we give them.

I have addressed our scandal fatigue and how we deal with it, but I want to hear from the readers about your scandal fatigue and how you deal with it. If I hear from enough of you by email this week, I will do a follow-up column with tips on how you handle all the frustration and sadness that we as investigative journalists dig up each day for you to digest. Let me know; I am really fascinated by how people not in my industry deal with what we put out. Meanwhile, I, Jason, Mike and our other staff and contributing reporters will continue to truth out as many stories as we can. Thanks for listening.