Broadcast on "Media Matters," PBS, June 13, 1997
[reprinted with permission of "Media Matters"]
Arnold Labaton, Executive Producer
Senior Producer, Daniel B.Polin
Producer of "Anatomy of a Syndrome," Joseph Dorman
Alex Jones, Host: I'm Alex Jones, executive editor of
Media Matters. This series examines the news media, one of our
society's most powerful and influential institutions. In each program we ask
top reporters to look at stories behind the news.
......Our first piece, the Gulf War Syndrome story.
It had all the signs of an outrageous cover-up. Men and women who served their
nation in combat, clearly sick with something, accusing their government of
lying to them. The Pentagon, forced repeatedly to change its version of the
facts. It was a compelling drama. But did the press get it right? Terry
Eastland of Forbes has our story.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: After the Gulf War, some 10,000 Desert
Storm troops fell victim to mysterious ailments. With thousands of Persian
Gulf veterans complaining of nausea, loss of energy, and other mysterious
symptoms . . .
Newscaster: Some of the town's Gulf War veterans fell ill, suffering
from fatigue, bleeding gums, skin rashes, even cancer.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Thirteen months after America's overwhelming
victory in the Gulf, veterans first began complaining of the mystery illness
that would become known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Newscaster: Some wonder whether some of these illnesses result from
exposure to the radiation from depleted uranium shells.
Mary Lane, Gulf Veteran: My motor function was gone. You know, my
hands won't do what I tell them to do.
Gary Zuspann, Gulf Veteran: I had dropped stuff in my body I can't
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Veterans claimed that their sickness was due
to exposure during the war, to Iraqi chemical agents or to other elements, such
as oil fire smoke. And they suspected that the Pentagon knew what had made
Major. General Ron Blanck, Commander Walter Reed Army Medical Center:
We don't know what to call it because we don't know what it is.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Government doctors found no physical cause
for the illnesses, believing that the best explanation was stress.
Dr. Lewis Kuller, University of Pittsburg: It doesn't mean that these
people weren't sick. They have a variety of health problems which were
Terry Eastland, Narrator: And the Pentagon repeatedly denied that the
troops had been exposed to toxic substances. Frustrated by the government's
response, the veterans turned to the news media, and journalists proved all too
Prof. Elaine Showalter, Author of "Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and
Modern Media" : I think the media coverage was intensely sensational. It
was presented as a set of new martyrs dying with a possibly contagious,
Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer: These stories about individual
veterans who are suffering make dramatic stories. And the subtext makes a case
that in this instance, I think, has drowned out the truth of the matter.
Michael Fumento, Media Critic: Gulf War Syndrome is a medical issue.
It is a scientific issue. It should have been reported as a medical and a
scientific issue. Veterans should not have been turned into experts. Experts
should have been treated as experts.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Suffering war heroes pitted against
government indifference and possible cover-up. Sudden revelations about
chemical weapons. This has been the Gulf War Syndrome story since 1992.
Veterans' complaints were legitimate news. So was the question of government
credibility. But at the core of the story lay scientific evidence, evidence
that too many journalists downplayed and even ignored. It all began with a
group of Indiana veterans, and the story grew from there.
Kate McKenna, Freelance Journalist: When I first started looking at it
in 1993, you would hear these stories coming in through Washington, usually
filtered through Capitol Hill offices, about veterans who were sick. They
weren't getting treatment. And you kept hearing more and more serious stories
about more and more serious symptoms. And as a feature writer, I began looking
Norm Brewer, Gannett News Service: I set about talking to as many
veterans as I could, fairly extensive interviews, most of them more than an
hour, some of them several hours. I probably talked to about 40 veterans
before we ever did our own sort of enterprise or in-depth report.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: The press helped bring to light the
suffering of the veterans. But many articles simply reported the veterans' own
accounts of their illnesses and their claims of dangerous exposure, failing to
provide medical and scientific context.
David Brown, M.D. The Washington Post: Well, anecdotal reporting is
extremely useful in all reporting, because it lends a vividness, a sort of
humanness to otherwise abstract subjects. And that's particularly true in
medicine. In some of the Gulf War reporting, there was an over-reliance on the
validity of the stories of some of the veterans who were reporting illness.
Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Most newspaper reporters don't
have the luxury of spending weeks and months to work on a story. A few of them
have the background or experience to know where to go to find out what the
overall story is. And so what you get are a lot of stories about individual
cases, in some cases, pathetic instances of people who are genuinely suffering
and who blame their suffering on their service in the Gulf War and the Pentagon
and the United States government.
I was asked in late 1994, by the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, to do
a story about Gulf War Syndrome. I began to research what epidemiological
studies had been done, and started to go out and talk to some of the scientists
who had worked on this. You would think that if there was an incident that
would have caused an exposure that would hurt people, that a lot of people who
were based in the same area would be suffering the same kind of symptoms. And
in fact, what I discovered was that the people who complain of these symptoms
come from all over the map. There's no pattern to it at all.
Prof. Elaine Showalter, Author of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and
Modern Media: Well, of course, a lot of the problem with interviews with
vets and with anecdotal information--some of it very moving and very
affecting--is that these are all self-reported symptoms. So I think it's
distorted in that sense. We don't really have a kind of objective basis of
Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer: The things that the veterans
complain about are very commonplace. Rashes are commonplace. Sleep disorders.
Nervousness. It would be hard to find someone who isn't suffering from one of
the symptoms that has been ascribed to Gulf War Syndrome.
Newscaster: Ravaged by Lou Gehrig's Disease and barely able to talk,
Marine Major Randy [Eber] told Congress today he is a victim of Iraqi chemical
Terry Eastland, Narrator: As the story developed, veterans with cancer
and other diseases also became possible victims of exposure in the Gulf War.
Jamie McIntyre, Pentagon Correspondent, CNN: There's no denying that
these veterans are sick. We had a very poignant bit of testimony on Capitol
Hill. And if you were watching that and putting yourself in the place of that
Marine, you'd be saying to yourself, "Yes, I would think the same thing. I was
healthy, went to the Gulf, thought I was exposed to chemicals, came back, and
developed Lou Gehrig's Disease." That's fine, except there needs to be some
science there as well.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: In fact, there is no evidence that exposure
to nerve agents can produce conditions like Lou Gehrig's Disease. Yet myths
like this spread from newspapers to national magazines. The mystery illness
was spreading, too. Wives had it, and so did children and even babies.
Newscaster: There was fear enough in Waynesboro, Mississippi, when
some of the town's Gulf War veterans fell ill. But now there are new concerns
here. Unusually high birth rate defects are surfacing among babies fathered by
Gulf War veterans.
Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer: There were allegations that
there were high rates of birth defects in particular units. So a contact in
the Mississippi Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, which
had studied the allegations of these increased birth defects (which were first
made by a newspaper down in Mississippi), and the study had concluded that in
fact there was no increase in the number of children born with birth defects.
Michael Fumento, Media Critic: 700,000 men and women served in
operations Desert Storm. Well, after five years, you're going to get a certain
number of deaths, cancers, birth defects. The question is, are they having
more of these than we would normally expect among a group this size, after this
period of time, of this age category, and so on and so forth. Every study done
in the categories that I just named shows that the vets are getting these
diseases at the same rate or an even lower rate than one would normally
Terry Eastland, Narrator: By June of 1996, no scientist had been able
to link the veterans' illnesses to exposure in the Gulf. The Gulf War Syndrome
story seemed to be running out of steam. And then came the news of
Dan Rather, News Anchor: Tonight the Pentagon reversed itself and
admitted for the first time that hundreds of soldiers may indeed have been
exposed to dangerous chemical weapons.
Newscaster: The mystery surrounding Gulf War Syndrome took a startling
turn today, when the Pentagon revealed that shortly after the war, American
troops blew up an Iraqi ammunition bunker which contained rockets armed with
nerve and mustard gas.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Revelations of chemical weapons at
Khamisiyah, after years of government denials, brought the mystery illness back
into the news, especially at the New York Times. In more than 30
articles, many on the front page, the Times aggressively investigated
events in the Gulf and whether the government had known all along that soldiers
had been exposed to chemical agents.
Andrew Rosenthal, The New York Times: We discovered that there were so
many things that we weren't being told; that we had stumbled onto a classic
story in which a government agency had made a policy decision that something
had or had not happened, without ever even looking this. And it was just sort
of the textbook case of what a newspaper is supposed to do in covering the
Mark Bowden, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, there's a dynamic to
this story. And the dynamic is that you have an establishment that is being
accused of covering up the exposure of its soldiers to some damaging chemical
or biological agent. And then on the other hand you have scientists who are
saying that there's no evidence that this exposure took place.
Prof. Elaine Showalter, Author of Hystories: Epidemics and Modern
Media: I think the New York Times has really been carrying the ball
on this story. More than any other newspaper or magazine in this country, the
Times has been playing up the idea of cover-up, conspiracy, lost papers,
Andrew Rosenthal, The New York Times: The people who claimed that they
had a syndrome resulting from this exposure had no way to have their claim
heard, because the government had decided that they were wrong, that they
hadn't been exposed, and that the exposure was not relevant to their health
problems. So our mission was to focus on the questions of what the government
had known, rather than on the end result.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Pressing the government for answers, the
Times could not avoid the scientific question of what had made the
veterans sick. But the paper's treatment of the science was unbalanced, at
times contradictory, and even misleading. Readers could easily conclude that
chemical agents had probably made the veterans sick.
Would the story of possible government cover-up be as compelling without this
tantalizing possibility that the exposure explains the illnesses that the vets
are complaining about?
Andrew Rosenthal, The New York Times: The idea that the exposure
explains the so-called Gulf War Syndrome is certainly another factor in the
story. And yes, it makes it "a better story", in the sense that it has more
implications and more possible complications. Regardless, I think it would
have been a good story. We have a situation in which tens of thousands of
people are risking their lives in American uniforms, fighting for what is
supposed to be a matter of great national security urgency. And they are
exposed to chemical weapons. They have a right to know that. And we have an
affirmative obligation to write about it.
David Brown, M.D. The Washington Post: The question about how truthful
and how forthcoming the Department of Defense was over the years is a perfectly
valid story, and it's an interesting story, and it's an important story. But
it just has very little to say about the biological plausibility of various
causes of Gulf War Syndrome.
John Bailar, M.D. Inst. of Medicine Panel on Gulf War Syndrome: There
are two things that I think have been lost in much of the news coverage. One
is that the exposure of very nearly all troops must have been extremely close
to zero. The other sort of builds on that, and it is the fact that nobody has
established any kind of relation between exposure to the ammunition dump
products and any kind of symptom or disease.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Skeptical of the government's handling of
the issue, reporters continued to speculate.
Newscaster: One agent the US military was unprepared to detect was
Dan Rather, News Anchor: The veterans may be suffering side effects
from experimental vaccine . . .
Newscaster: Approximately 2,000 soldiers could be victims of what
doctors call a Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: In addition to nerve gas, aflatoxin,
chemical sensitivity, and other theories were all explored. Journalists often
relied on the opinions of a small but vocal group of scientists who made
John Bailar, M.D. Inst. of Medicine, Panel on Gulf War Syndrome:
Somehow, when these alternative views get out to the public, they're presented
as having really equal standing with the overwhelming opinion of the scientists
and physicians who have studied this and concluded that these alternative
explanations don't seem to stand up.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: A recently published study claims that
exposure to toxic agents made some veterans sick. But that remains a
distinctly minority view. Over the years, five scientific and medical panels
have analyzed the mystery illness and its possible explanations. Each has
found that there is no diagnosable syndrome, and that stress is the most likely
explanation for much of the sickness.
John Bailar, M.D. Inst. of Medicine, Panel on Gulf War Syndrome: I
think the message that stress is very important and may be the sole cause, has
just not gotten through to large parts of the public.
Jamie McIntyre, Pentagon Correspondent, CNN: We haven't done a lot of
reporting on stress and its possible cause. And part of it is, it's not the
answer that veterans really want to hear.
Prof. Elaine Showalter, Author of Hystories: Epidemics and Modern
Media: People often say, "Oh, stress. Well, you're just saying it's just
in my head, or it's just in their heads." But it's not in their heads. It's
in their legs. It's in their skin. It's in their stomachs. It's in the
cardiovascular system. It has real physical effects. And the pain and
suffering are just as real as if it were caused by a virus or by a
chemical. I think we need to respect that and understand it and be sympathetic
to it, rather than resist it.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Unlike many of his colleagues, Washington
Post medical reporter David Brown examined in detail the science at the
core of the Gulf War Syndrome story. In January, Brown wrote a front page
article reviewing the various theories in light of the current state of
David Brown, M.D., The Washington Post: The thing about science
reporting is that the reporter can never really advance the story beyond what
is known, beyond what has been uncovered by scientists. And there may be some
illuminating findings that will come out in the future about the cause of
chronic illness in some of the Gulf War patients. It is still correct to say,
and responsible to say, that it's unlikely that there will be great new
revelations. It's unlikely that the current state of knowledge is going to
change hugely in the future. And if something is unlikely, then the reader
deserves to know that.
Terry Eastland, Narrator: Over the past five years, distrust of the
Pentagon and a desire to solve the veterans' mystery illness have all too often
led reporters to substitute speculation for scientific evidence.
Michael Fumento, Media Critic: I think reporters on Gulf War Syndrome
have done a disservice to the public, especially to the vets. What the
scientific panel said should have been reported, not just on the day that they
said it or the day after. The reader and the listener should have been
continually reminded of what was said. The speculation should have been pretty
much cut out.
Prof. Elaine Showalter, Author of Hystories: Epidemics and Modern
Media: We're not hearing about the relationship of exposure to symptoms.
We're hearing about suspicions about the Pentagon: Who will talk? Who won't
talk? Where are the gaps? What's missing? Now, that makes exciting
journalism, but not very informative or responsible journalism.
Alex Jones, Host: If we don't get complexity from the major media on a
story of national importance, like Gulf War Syndrome, what can we expect from
local television, a place where most of us get most of our news?