Fade to Black? TV Coverage of VA Scandal Drops 84% in June

July 1st, 2014 9:45 AM

In May, Americans were horrified by the scandal enveloping the Veterans Affairs and the media seemed to agree. World News anchor Diane Sawyer denounced  the secret lists and substandard care as a "national outrage." But as the story grew and evolved in June, ABC, CBS and NBC seem to have already moved past the "outrage." In June, the networks allowed a scant 30 minutes, compared to 180 minutes in May. This is a drop of 84 percent. 

According an analysis by the Media Research Center, ABC devoted 28 minutes in May to the VA controversy, but only five in June. CBS offered 78 minutes in May, but only 15 the following month. NBC's coverage dropped off a cliff in June, falling from 73 minutes to just ten. Journalists lost interest in the story even as big developments kept occurring. Among the examples: 

■ On June 27, a report prepared for the White House offered a "scathing" critique of the VA, highlighting long wait times. Yet, ABC didn't bother reporting on this particular story for two days. Finally, on June 29, World News guest host Rebecca Jarvis allowed 25 seconds for the devastating "internal review of the VA recommending a total restructure amid the growing scandal of veterans waiting months for medical care." 

■ According to the June 28 New York Times, "The Veterans Health Administration has a corrosive culture that has led to poor management, a history of retaliation toward employees, cumbersome and outdated technology, and a shortage of doctors, nurses and physical space to treat its patients." Yet, that day's Good Morning America skipped the story and instead allocated three minutes for the "news" that the opening of the world's largest water slide had been delayed. 

■ On June 30, the Washington Times highlighted the claims of 50 VA whistle blowers who say they were punished for exposing the poor conditions some veterans suffered under. Yet, ABC, CBS and NBC skipped this development. 

■ On June 11, NBC and ABC were preoccupied covering the 20th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson trial and failed to notice that the FBI had opened a criminal investigation into the VA scandal.

■ When an audit revealed that one in ten veterans wait at least a month to get an appointment, CBS and NBC avoided the story on June 19 and 20. ABC's GMA allowed a mere 14 seconds.  

■ On June 4, the VA scandal exploded into Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. But NBC and CBS skipped the news. Despite a combined eight hours of time available on the morning shows, GMA alone offered a scant 21 seconds to the revelation that the "secret waiting lists" were kept in multiple states. 

■ Perhaps in a sign of things to come, the month ended with only the NBC Nightly News reporting on the nomination of Robert McDonald to be the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs. On June 30 anchor Brian Williams only allowed meager 22 seconds on how this impacted the future of the VA.  

The coverage of this scandal, involving at least 40 veterans who died while awaiting care, has been problematic from the start. The story broke on April 23, but the networks didn't get around to it until 13 days later, May 6. But the 180 minutes of coverage in May faded substantially in June. 

This pattern follows the waning interest in the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups.  In May of 2013, ABC, CBS and NBC devoted 52 stories the first week. That plummeted to seven by week three and just one by week five. Over the next ten months, the networks managed just 14 more stories, ignoring the damning developments. 

Journalists may not be interested in investigating the Obama administration's culpability and response to this widening scandal. But the story is still ongoing and has real-world implications for veterans. Men and women who serve this country deserve tenacious reporters who will investigate what went wrong at the VA and why, regardless of how it impacts the Democratic administration in power. 

[Thanks to MRC analysts Jeffrey Meyer and Curtis Houck for research assistance.]