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ANATOMY OF A SYNDROME

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 even pronounce.

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 them sick.

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 carefully evaluated.

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 sympathetic.

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, mysterious illness.

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 into it.

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 understanding.

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 weapons.

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 expect.

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 Khamisiyah.

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 government.

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, missing files.

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 aflatoxin.

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 dubious claims.

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 scientific knowledge.

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?

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