The Bubble Finally Cares About the Veterans Affairs Story

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 21 2014 1:44 PM

The Bubble Finally Cares About the Veterans Affairs Story

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It may not be so simple as Obama getting rid of Eric Shinseki.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

On May 9 I put up a quick post warning that problems at the Phoenix VA hospital, leading (reportedly) to the unnecessary deaths of 40 veterans, were growing into a scandal for the Obama White House. Not my proudest moment in journalism—any schmuck could have noticed the furor coming at first from conservative veterans organizations and then from some Republican senators.

But it wasn't until this week that the scandal broke out and our beloved White House press corps started peppering Jay Carney with questions that—fair enough—looked really dramatic on TV. What changed? The best description of the shift came in this very meta New York Times lede on how the VA story had started to "aggravate the woes of the White House."

The incidents have also generated a new round of condemnation from the president’s liberal pop culture allies, an indication that anger about the allegations has moved beyond the halls of Congress. On Monday, Jon Stewart on Comedy Central mocked the president’s top officials, including Mr. Shinseki, for what he called tepid expressions of outrage and anger in recent days.
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That's what it took? That's what it took. The Jon Stewart segment really seemed to penetrate the media's bubble, with Vox and Mediaite and other sites informing viewers of the righteous anger just unleashed. So did Business Insider—no, sorry. Business Insider cottoned on to the story after an April 5 segment on The Daily Show, based (like many such segments) on network news reporting. And the president was asked about Phoenix on April 28, at which time he said he'd ordered an IG investigation.

I don't often agree with Eric Alterman, but his rundown of how the political press moved zero to 60, from ignoring the story to asking if it was The Next Benghazi, is worth reading. The VA outrage is real, but there are questions about how many of the deaths in Phoenix can be blamed on wait times, and there's very little context going around about how many veterans have been added to the system since the start of the Obama years. The American Legion was one of the first organizations to call for Shineski to go, but it was Concerned Veterans for America, an organization run by a former Republican Senate candidate and funded by close to $2 million from the Koch networks, that really made this a cause on the right. On the right, one of the most infamous aspects of the story is whether a distant president learned about it "from news reports" or whether he was aware and the news reports merely started a panic.

It's notable that Sen. John McCain, who has unmatched credbility on the Hill on these sorts of issues, has not called for Shinseki to step down. He's kept the focus on the VA itself, without presenting the possiblility that one high-profile defenstration could fix its problems. There's one story, about a long-running challenge of the VA, and telling it—solving it—involves a lot of nuance and investigation. There's another, derpier story about whether this story is Benghazi II: Benghazi Harder.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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