This e-mail interview was conducted by Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute Broadcast/Online Group Leader, with Anne Hull and Dana Priest, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and the ASNE Distinguished Writing Award for Local Accountability Reporting. This excerpt is taken from Best Newspaper Writing 2008-2009, published by Poynter and CQ Press.
Al Tompkins: How did you hear about this story? What started your investigation?
Dana Priest: A friend of an acquaintance called up, asked for a lunch date, and shared a tiny corner of this problem. In this sense it was a classic tip, one that has been rare in both of our careers.
Much has been said and written about how difficult this story was to tell. Had the Army and/or the hospital known that you were working on this story, you certainly would have been shut out. How did you get access to the patients and their rooms? How did you introduce yourself to people you met along your journey at Walter Reed? Were you prepared to lie to gain access?
Anne Hull: Working beneath the radar was crucial because we needed to see the problems at Walter Reed with our own eyes. We needed to roam around the 110-acre facility at various hours of the day or night and talk to soldiers and Marines without the interference of Army public affairs. We needed to connect with wounded soldiers that were not pre-selected by the Army.
So we bypassed the normal protocol of requesting permission to visit Walter Reed and be accompanied by an escort. We simply went onto post on our own. We never lied about our identity. We presented our driver’s licenses at the guard gates as all visitors do. Once on the post, we made sure to not bring attention to ourselves while reporting. We tried to never put ourselves in the position where someone might ask, “Who are you?” As with any reporting, you try not to stand out from your subjects.
Order Best Newspaper Writing 2008-2009 (available fall 2008)
Order audio of the “Creating an Investigative Narrative” seminar with Anne Hull and Dana Priest at the 2008 Nieman conference
A general pattern of complaints emerged: long waiting periods to see doctors, bungled paperwork, uncaring administrative staff and platoon sergeants, and tough living conditions for some soldiers who’d been stranded at Walter Reed for as long as two years. One of the most common complaints was how little the Army was willing to pay out in disability benefits for wounds suffered in Iraq. This ticked many soldiers off and made them more willing to speak out.
The two of you came to this project with different skills. Priest is an investigator, Hull a narrative storyteller. What did you learn from each other?
Hull: While we both describe ourselves as reporters, how we approach a story or tell it is very different. Dana has spent much of her life examining broken or negligent systems or institutions. I have focused on the people being crushed or forgotten by those institutions. One thing I learned from her is the value in casting something in black and white. Often I’m carried away by the gray. Instantly, Dana can figure out the mission statement or promise — “only the best of care for our nation’s wounded” — and juxtapose it with the brokenness of something, such as Building 18. She is an accountability reporter and relentless about her obligation as a journalist. She believes that if the press doesn’t hold an institution accountable, no one else will. It’s hard to convey how strategic and steely she is. Those are things you can’t really learn but can only hope might rub off a little.
Priest: Anne’s approach is not direct. She’s just willing to not know where a person is going to lead her, and for a much longer time than I generally have the patience for. And then she likes to sink into a subject and not emerge for days on end. And then, if that weren’t frustrating enough for a daily beat reporter, just when I thought we had something figured out and knew where we were going, she’d say: “Well, this is just the start, we have to see where it takes us.” I wanted to pin down as many moving parts as possible, as quickly as possible, and she wanted to do the opposite — to let a thousands flowers bloom, slowly, at their own, slow-as-molasses, natural pace. What she draws from this is a rare intimacy, and because she is such a great writer, she can then put that on the page for all to feel.
Dana, you have told audiences that this story, at times, brought you to tears. What was it that touched you? Why is it important for journalists to still allow themselves to be touched by the stories they are reporting?
Priest: The depth of the injuries and the road to repair seemed so overwhelming for some of these soldiers and their families. Each story was the same, yet it was completely different; a different body part gone, a different, awful nightmare, a different set of burdensome family or financial problems. The fact that they were living in such silence in the midst of all the thunderous clapping on their behalf was so powerful. “Allow” is a difficult word to deal with. Even though some of these people may have brought me to tears and to the point of red-faced anger, when it came to writing the stories, I was totally cautious and diligent in not overstating anything. In this sense I didn’t allow the emotions to do anything but help tell the objective story before us — in all its outrageousness.
Anne, you have said, as a result of this project: “For the first time in my life I realized the true power we have, as journalists, to create change.” What do you mean by that?
Hull: As a journalist you go about your daily work life trying to get a story out or make someone’s life better or shine a light on wrongdoing. Most of us don’t seek to entertain, we seek to illuminate. Still, the chances to play a role in creating reform are rare. The Walter Reed stuff landed with a ferocious wallop. Washington — Congress, the Pentagon, the White House — all reacted in dramatic fashion. It was a reminder to everyone in the Post newsroom that journalism is still this mighty tool for good. You always think you know this basic fact but seeing it unfold so viscerally is a powerful reminder.