How the Media Reward Themselves for Dishonesty

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Gulf

When it comes to Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), the evidence keeps going in one direction and the media keep going in the other.

In the most recent development, the Pentagon has just released its latest study. It looked at almost 19,000 Gulf vets and found, once again, that aside from certain psychological problems there’s no pattern of symptoms to suggest that "Gulf War Syndrome" means anything other than any sickness that happens to befall a Gulf vet.

GWS is essentially a media creation. Out of the 700,000 vets who served in the Gulf, a few began complaining of various but unrelated ailments. Soon the media got ahold of it and pronounced this a mystery, as if out of 700,000 men and women after a period of a few years, none were supposed to be sick. When soldiers read of this mystery "syndrome" they began assuming, in the way people do, that any illness they had was related to it.

At last count, their were over 75 symptoms attributed to GWS, ranging from life-threatening ones like cancer and heart disease to lesser ones like weight loss and weight gain, graying hair, kidney stones, thick saliva, hot and cold flashes, increased urination, lightheadedness, sensitive teeth, hemorrhoids, and a "foot fungus that will not go away."

Most of the symptoms are often connected to psychosomatic illness, such as joint pain, memory loss, and headaches. Others, like semen that burns the skin, are as unsubstantiated as Elvis sightings.

Every major study looking for a cause of GWS has found the same thing. There just ain’t no such animal. The first two of these came from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, and both found that other than psychiatric ills induced by stress, Gulf vets have no more illness than one would expect. These studies were criticized somewhat for their methodology by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM), and the media gaily repeated that criticism. But in January the IOM itself concluded there was no such thing as GWS.

Nevertheless, the media continue to promote the story and to congratulate themselves for it. Life magazine has just won the 1996 John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Interest Magazine Journalism for its November cover story, "The Tiny Victims of Desert Storm."

The article — which purported to discover a high rate of birth defects among children of Gulf War vets — was "a good, tough, moving look at a national tragedy," gushed contest judge Doug Balz, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine. It worked "on both the heart and mind of the reader."

Again, with all those children born to 700,000 vets, you’re going to have a certain number of problems. But study after study has found no more problems than would be expected. These include one from the Mississippi Department of Health of an alleged birth defect cluster, a larger study of 620 pregnancies at Robins Air Force Base, and a combined study of 6,392 pregnancies at several bases which found Gulf vets’ wives’ miscarriages at the same level as that population had before deployment to the Gulf. It was also about half the civilian rate.

"I think it’s unconscionable to frighten people out of reproducing unless you have some good data to support that contention," Dr. Russell Tarver, who led the Mississippi National Guard investigation, told me. "I think you’re committing a crime against those veterans."

That’s what Life did. It carefully ignored each of these studies. Instead it simply regaled its readers with touching anecdotes about children with birth defects whose parents had become convinced — by other stories like Life’s — that being endowed with a perfect baby is a God-given right which was cruelly taken from them because of their service in the Gulf.

Why do the media continue to ignore the evidence in favor of personal testimonials from people they themselves have terrified?

"There’s no question that the media tend to look at the negative side and the bad news more than the positive side and good news," Los Angeles Times news critic David Shaw told me. "This is particularly true of medical problems and health issues because these are things about which the people worry the most. That’s doubly true when children are involved. People tend to throw all skepticism out of the window."

"Parrot conventional wisdom to win a prize! Squawk! Parrot conventional wisdom to win a prize! Squawk!"

Part of the problem, Shaw adds, is the "herd of independent minds" phenomenon. Members of the press corps are loath to write anything that will make them seem odd. "Reporters tend to be more likely to parrot the conventional wisdom," says Shaw. "There’s a premium to be paid for doing the story that goes against the grain." And one to be gained for going with it, as the Life award shows.

But doesn’t accuracy count? Not usually.

"In the two years I was a judge at the Pulitzers I don’t remember hearing anybody saying ’Let’s make phone calls’" to verify what’s in a story, said Shaw. I think the assumption is that if there were something wrong with the story the paper wouldn’t be entering it."

Lately there’s been a lot of hand-wringing from the media about why it seems the public hates them. Why? They reward dishonesty and incompetence with cover stories of major magazines. Then they hand out awards for those stories. Good people suffer as a result. What’s not to hate?