Saturday, November 10, 2018

Unreliable Sources and the Wounds of War


Unreliable Sources

Read the new, five-part report co-authored by VHPI’s Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven. The story begins with the Concerned Veterans for America, an arm of the Koch Brothers’ political network, that drove the widely-publicized Phoenix wait-time scandal. Then, as the VA’s public relations response withered under the criticism, news organizations like CNN and USA Today shaped the narrative around the Veterans Health Administration as a troubled and ineffective agency – even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Click here to read the report.

From the authors:
“I spent five years interviewing veterans and reporting from inside the VA. The failing healthcare system portrayed by many politicians and the news media ignores the evidence and many veterans’ experiences at the Veterans Health Administration.” - Suzanne Gordon, VHPI Senior Analyst 

"In analyzing media coverage of the VA, we found journalists often promoted anecdotal scandals and ignored agency-wide triumphs. While accountability journalism is a vital tool of democracy, reporters also bear a responsibility to frame their stories with the the proper context, and data." - Jasper Craven, VHPI Fellow


On the powerful Koch-powered Concerned Veterans for America’s role in driving coverage:
When the Phoenix scandal broke, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) was a fledgling advocacy group working from the fringes. As the Washington Monthly reported, the group’s staff – led by telegenic veteran Pete Hegseth – brilliantly packaged, framed and fed the Phoenix story to a salivating news media desperate for a scandal in the Obama administration. The most serious charges out of Phoenix – that veterans died because they were unable to access care – were never substantiated. The cover up of wait times was more indicative of the agency’s chronic capacity and funding challenges than anything else – issues that to this day have not been meaningfully addressed. Today, CVA holds incredible sway in Washington. Numerous CVA officials have entered President Donald Trump’s White House, or his Department of Veterans Affairs. Hegseth is now an anchor on the president’s favorite morning news show, Fox & Friends.

How the Obama Administration's VA kept the lid on positive stories:
This duck-and-cover response extends to reporters trying to cover VA innovations. In 2015, Daniel Zwerdling, a well-known health care journalist for National Public Radio, was preparing a story that highlighted the VHA as an industry leader in installing lift equipment to reduce musculoskeletal injuries among bedside nursing staff. Zwerdling, who wanted to tell a positive story about the VA, was stymied at every turn. “I found terrific local people working at specific hospitals who were anxious and eager to help me because they felt this was so important,” he said. “They couldn’t do it without permission from on high.”

And from the Trump Administration:
Under Trump, obstructionism with reporters seems to rule, including at VA. When HBO’s VICE News was doing a segment on suicide among veterans, reporter Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani was unable to get much help from national VA communications staff. Staffers at the San Francisco VA were able to connect her to some suicide prevention experts, but were stymied when they asked permission to allow VICE to bring a camera crew into the medical center. Requests for interviews and even background conversations with national suicide prevention staff were also greeted with an endless stream of replies summed up as “we’re still working on it.”

Read the full report: Note: This article was expanded from an original article published in The Washington Monthly in the July/August 2018 issue.

New Book: Wounds of War

Award-winning journalist and VHPI Senior Analyst Suzanne Gordon’s new book, Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans has been published by Cornell University Press. The book details how the nation’s largest healthcare system operates, why its care model is unique in American health care, and the danger to veterans if it were to be dismantled. Read a book review by Vietnam Veteran and VHPI Steering Committee member Paul Cox.

Suzanne Gordon in an interview with

“The VA gives better care at lower costs to sicker patients. And the private sector is fragmented care, while the VA is an integrated system. Why is the care of the veterans so far superior to the care I will receive, and I have the best health insurance around? Because my doctors aren’t on salary, and they have huge incentives to overtreat, and they never talk to each other. Its completely uncoordinated.”
“But no one in Congress really understands the VA, they don’t understand healthcare, they are very focused on individual doctors appointments and procedures. They don’t understand the kind of care coordination and integration that the VA puts into practice which I describe in my book.”

What people are saying about Wounds of War:

“Wounds of War highlights what the average American rarely gets to see in the news media but what many veterans know first-hand: day in and day out – and with little fanfare – the Veterans Health Administration provides high quality, patient-centered care to millions of our nation’s veterans.” – Senator Bernie Sanders (VT)

“Wounds of War intersperses ‘boots on the ground’ stories from providers, volunteers, family members, and veterans receiving care and enhances dry data about VA care. I have never read something that so wonderfully ties it all together. It’s a true work of art.” – Amy Webb, National Legislative Policy Advisor, AMVETS

"Suzanne Gordon's revealing work approaches veterans health care from a civilian's point of view and opens up a world most of us where unaware even existed. Mainstream media war correspondents make their names by reporting from war zones. But Gordon spent five years where the fallout of war is most intense – and often goes unreported. The majority of Americans will never experience the sacrifice of veterans or their families but this book puts us closer to truly understanding the Wounds of War." – Brett W. Copeland, VHPI Executive Director

Purchase the book on
Wilkie ‘blows off’ Congressional document request re: VA ‘Shadow Rulers’
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has declined to provide documents to the House Veterans Affairs Committee related to Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter and the two other VA ‘Shadow Rulers.’ A ProPublica story from August alleged the three men had unusual access to leaders and sway over the agency’s priorities and programs. Read the editorial from the Dallas Star Tribune.

Quick Clicks:
  • The VA estimates that more than half-a-million veterans have received Other Than Honorable discharges yet are eligible for some VA care. But so far, the agency has only treated 115 in a new program. Vietnam Veterans of America’s Rick Weidman and Kristofer Goldsmith respond in this article by NPR.
  • Disabled American Veterans’ Legislative Director Joy Ilem was on Federal Drivediscussing the health care needs of the largest growing group of veterans: women.
  • The AP reports on a shakeup of the leadership team at the Atlanta VA Medical Center after it was rated among the worst in the nation.
  • VA Secretary Robert Wilkie continues to oppose extending benefits to ‘Blue Water’ Navy Veterans from the Vietnam War for potential Agent Orange exposure – and has the same position for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.Read the article at the Wall Street Journal.
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