CNN's VA scandal coverage reminder of what cable news can be

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Jake Tapper, host of CNN's 'The Lead,' has played a key role in the channel's outstanding coverage of the VA scandal.

It was almost like old times last week watching CNN's wall-to-wall coverage of the Veterans Affairs scandal story.

I mean the good old times, when cable TV news mattered because it was doing journalism — not right- or left-wing talking points as Fox News and MSNBC do, and not whatever it was that CNN was doing in its weird obsession with Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in recent months.

And it made a real difference. CNN's investigative reporting by Drew Griffin, coupled with hard-hitting interviews like one anchor Jake Tapper did with White House chief of staff Dennis McDonough, forced the White House to pay attention to the medical plight of veterans in a way it had not come close to doing in the first six years of the Obama administration.

By Wednesday, news was surfacing that the director of a VA center in Arizona where data had been falsified had been awarded a $9,345 bonus. President Barack Obama was forced to call a news conference and defend his administration. (The bonus has since been rescinded.)

Thursday morning, newspapers across the country carried stories on their front pages about the widening VA scandal, Obama's sitdown with embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and the president's performance in his news conference after the meeting.

It certainly looked as if CNN had reconnected with the agenda-setting power it once regularly enjoyed before it started chasing killer whales and lost airliners. If true, that would be a good thing for cable TV news — and democracy.

CNN's Tapper says he believes the channel still has the muscle it showed last week, in part because it is one of rarest things in TV news: an independent voice.

"If this story had come from someplace that was perceived to have political baggage, even if it was the exact same story, it would not be taken as seriously," he said in a phone interview. "And that is the worth of maintaining an independent voice."

Joe Concha, columnist for Mediaite, agrees that the source of a story on cable news can make a difference.

"If Fox had broken the VA scandal, it simply would not have held as much weight because many in the industry would unfairly give it the Benghazi-Fox treatment," he wrote in an email. "But since CNN, which is less of a political-opinion-driven network, doesn't evoke the same visceral reaction as Fox or MSNBC from both its competition or certain audiences, breaking a story like the VA story is more embraced by other outlets."

But Eric Deggans, TV critic for NPR, thinks CNN's recent journalistic sins have hurt its credibility, and that it's the nature of the VA story — not the trustworthiness of the source — that is powering the scandal through the media.

Tapper "overlooks CNN's problem, which is that its coverage of stuff like the Malaysian airliner harms the reputation of their journalism," he adds. "So it may take a while for mainstream news organizations to look at their work for that reason."

Deggans says the VA story "has exploded" because it's "so stark, obvious and cuts across partisan lines."

But, he concludes, "A story that is more political, where the heroes and villains are less obvious, might be received differently."

In other words, the mainstream media might be just as wary these days in dealing with any CNN story as they are with those generated by MSNBC or Fox.

As I watched CNN's coverage, I wanted to believe again in the channel I once turned to without hesitation when news broke. But every time I've started to believe again during the current era of CNN President Jeff Zucker, I've hated myself in the morning.

So let me stick to some facts and straightforward analysis.

The investigative reporting of Griffin and others at CNN fleshed out the widespread practice of managers "gaming" veterans' attempts to see doctors by "cooking the books," keeping one set of lists that showed every patient was being seen within the prescribed 14-day limit when, in fact, they were not being seen for months in some cases.

Yes, other outlets in other media have been on the story as well, dating back several years. But CNN owns the TV territory and has by far done the best work.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of its hard-nosed reporting: Griffin has been trying to get an interview with Shinseki for six months, and while the secretary has talked to other reporters, he will not talk to CNN. And this in an administration that ran for office on promises of transparency and accountability.

On May 15, when Team Obama started a PR push to counter a mounting perception that the administration was insensitive to veterans, McDonough came on Tapper's daily show, "The Lead," to try and sell the spin about the president being "mad as hell." Tapper exposed the emptiness of the rhetoric with facts and passion.

After cataloging some of the CNN reports and reading from letters sent to Shinseki about abuses in the system, Tapper asked McDonough, "How many stories like this, how many letters like this, how many dead veterans do you need before somebody asks the question within the White House: Maybe this guy isn't the best steward of these veterans?"

"We are doing everything we can every day to get the veterans the care and the opportunities that they deserve" McDonough replied.

"But you are not," Tapper said. "This letter was sent a year ago. And you guys ignored it."

Calling out the White House chief of staff on live TV that baldly is a good enough definition of speaking truth to power for me.

The CNN performance, though, that sent me to the computer to write this column came Wednesday after Obama's news conference.

It was classic CNN from the glory years, with Tapper now in the anchor chair and a screen filled with four smart talking heads weighing in on what Obama said after his meeting with Shinseki.

Tapper asked the quartet if Obama said anything during the session that they thought veterans "wanted to hear."

The resounding answer: no.

"I'll tell you what they did not want to hear: 'We're going to wait again for another investigation,' " Griffin said, paraphrasing the true gist of Obama's remarks. And Griffin's critique only got tougher from there, focusing on what he called the "disconnect" between Obama's description of the VA situation and the reality that CNN has been reporting for months.

"I'm very disappointed, and I know the veterans' community will be disappointed as well," said Darin Selnick, a retired Air Force captain now working as a consultant on veterans issues. He cited statistics that blew up Obama's claim during the news conference that things have improved the last five years for veterans.

It was a textbook example of how a TV news operation deconstructs spin at the highest level.

I wanted to type the words, "All hail CNN." But I fear what I've been seeing is merely a mirage — a once-great athlete flashing back to a performance in his prime.

And given some of Zucker's programming moves, I wouldn't be surprised to receive a news release tomorrow saying CNN is getting out of the news business altogether.

So let's just hail CNN's coverage of the VA scandal — so far. And here's hoping it stays on the case as government watchdog — the most effective we have on television right now.