Posted Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, at 1:31 PM
Yesterday's big non-Pope story was the engrossing Esquire profile of the Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama Bin Laden. But one specific detail—that the shooter was apparently left without health insurance after leaving the military—has been criticized by journalists and more than a few readers around the Web as being flatly inaccurate at worst and misleading at best. The profile's author, Center for Investigative Reporting director Phil Bronstein, and Esquire, meanwhile, are sticking by their story.
So who's right? Depends what version you go by: the print edition, which included some extra information about veteran health benefits, or the original online one, which didn't. A close reading of the former suggests that while Bronstein may have overplayed his hand somewhat, the criticism that followed would have likely been much quieter if everyone would have simply read to the end of his sprawling 15,000-odd word piece. The latter, however, explains why so many people were so quick to take issue with the report.
Here's the original passage in question that ran in both versions and prompted the wide-spread coverage of the health care issue:
But the Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.
That line certainly gives the impression that the unnamed SEAL has no access to government-funded health care now that he's out of the military, something that was originally flagged by a number of other media outlets in secondary reports that quickly spread around the Web. But that's not entirely accurate, as noted by Stars and Stripes blogger Megan McCloskey, who was the first to launch the counter-charge against the idea. In a post yesterday, she explained matter-of-factly that the unnamed SEAL, like every combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "is automatically eligible for five years of free healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs," but "the story doesn't mention that."
The confusing thing is that the story did mention that—just much further down, and only originally in the print version. The missing line has since been added to the digital version—something BuzzFeed spotted today. (The lines in question are in bold/italics):
There is a Transition Assistance Program in the military, but it's largely remedial level, rote advice of marginal value: Wear a tie to interviews, not your Corfam (black shiny service) shoes. Try not to sneeze in anyone's coffee. There is also a program at MacDill Air Force Base designed to help Special Ops vets navigate various bureaucracies. And the VA does offer five years of benefits for specific service-related claims — but it’s not comprehensive and it offers nothing for the Shooter's family.
With those lines included in the story, it's clear that Bronstein isn't denying the existence of the VA program but instead making the case—as much of the rest of the profile does—that we as a nation should do more for returning soldiers like his unnamed subject. But without it, it gives the false impression that Bronstein intentionally ignored a program that, while perhaps ineffective, clearly exists.
Making this whole thing that much more confusing was Esquire's original defense of their story. While they've since tacked on a simple line apologizing for the omission of "a few sentences that ran in the issue printed last week," their full-throated and aggressive rebuttal this morning to the Stars and Stripes post made no mention of the error. Instead, it pointed out that the shooter was apparently unaware of the VA benefits and that they don't cover his family anyway, before concluding:
So if there are people out there, journalists included, who think that the status quo is hunky dory, the government's approach to these extraordinary veterans is just right or even adequate, and who are too quick to incorrectly call another journalist's work "wrong" rather than doing their own work on the profound problems of returning veterans, then, as the cover of the magazine says, the man who killed Osama bin Laden truly is screwed.
UPDATE: Esquire's editors have apparently seen the error of their ways, and have issued something of an apology to McCloskey for their previous aggressively defensive posture. Here's their note, which now runs at the top of their rebuttal post:
The online version of The Shooter story did not reflect the final version of the story in the print magazine, which went to press 10 days ago. The print version included more details about the availability of benefits for veterans. Unfortunately, this omission on the online version, which has been corrected, has led to a misunderstanding, through no fault of her own, by reporter Megan McCloskey and others about some of the facts in our story regarding healthcare and our veterans.
Now that the dust has (hopefully) settled, everyone's free to return to reading what remains a very powerful account of the raid that killed Bin Laden. Read it in full here.