Since a massive scandal involving the Veterans Affairs department became public, the three networks have devoted a combined 71 minutes and 55 seconds (or 38 stories) to investigating a secret list delaying treatment to military personnel. That total time included a scant five seconds of criticism for Barack Obama. Instead, ABC, CBS and NBC focused their stories on Secretary Eric Shinseki and to assuring Americans that the President was on top of the situation.
NBC dedicated 32 minutes and 25 seconds to the revelation that up to 40 patients in Arizona died due to lack of care. CBS managed 28 minutes and two seconds and ABC allowed 11 minutes and 28 seconds. In addition to avoiding culpability for the White House, the networks got to the story late. The story broke on April 23, but NBC didn't get around to it until the May 6 Nightly News. CBS and ABC discovered the controversy for that day's morning programs.
Instead of questioning the response of Shinseki, the man Obama appointed, the networks repeated administration spin. On the May 15 CBS This Morning, Norah O'Donnell recounted that the President ordered his deputy chief of staff to assist in the review. She described an administration in action: "The White House is getting involved in the scandal this morning."
On the May 7 CBS Evening News, Wyatt Andrews repeated upbeat talk, insisting, "Shinseki got his strongest endorsement where it counts, full backing from the President."
On the May 15 Good Morning America, Jim Avila made the story more about an aggressive White House response:
JIM AVILA: Overnight, the White House announced a big move to get in front of allegations that executives at V.A. hospitals around the country are cooking the books to hide long waits at V.A. hospitals. With the V.A. Secretary Erik Shinseki called to testify on Capitol Hill today, President Obama announced his trusted and high-ranking aide, deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, will jump in to see the nationwide audit of each and every V.A. hospital in the country. President Obama issuing this statement. "America has a sacred trust with the men and women who serve our country in uniform. It's clear the V.A. Needs to do more to ensure quality care to our veterans."
The sum total of criticism came on the May 9 GMA. Jon Karl noted the President's claim that Shinseki "has actually made tremendous progress" at fixing the VA is "in question" because of allegations of the Phoenix cover-up.
On Thursday's evening newscasts and Friday's morning shows, all three networks touted Shinseki's claim that he was "mad as hell" about the scandal and would get to the bottom of it. Yet, none of these networks pointed out that it wasn't until eight days after CNN broke the story (April 23), that he issued a statement (May 1).
On that day, an incredulous Anderson Cooper railed, "...This news today is really the first indication we've had that Secretary Shinseki was showing any interest in this." Unlike the networks, CNN and Fox News offered heavy coverage early.
Regarding the administration stonewalling, Cooper talked to investigative reporter Drew Griffin:
ANDERSON COOPER: These are public officials. That their job is to be transparent. Their job is to present information to the American public. I mean, the fact that they're like dodging and weaving and squealing off in their cars running away from you. That the head of the VA won't do an interview with you, in all the months you've been investigating this, it just boggles my mind.
However, CBS, NBC and ABC weren't covering the story at the time.
The allegations and problems with the V.A. have been going on for years. On December 13, 2012, CNN's AC360 exposed a cover-up of a bacterial infection at a V.A. hospital in Pennsylvania. Yet, the networks avoided noting that long waits go back two years.
On May 14, Republican Senator Richard Burr wondered, "Why were the national audits and statements of concern from the VA only made this month?"
Perhaps one reason that ABC, CBS and NBC haven't investigated this previously is an almost total blackout on Secretary Shinseki himself. Prior to the eruption of this scandal, ABC and NBC last mentioned him on December 6, 2008, the day Shinseki was nominated. CBS referenced him on April 17, 2006, almost eight years ago.
In almost 72 minutes of coverage, one would think that the networks could be a little more curious about the White House's responsibility.