COMMENTS: Classic Crusading Journalism

Sandwiched between a pair of California debates on CNN, the Story of the Day was the looming Super Tuesday Presidential primary. The top four Republican candidates confronted one another at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Wednesday night. The two remaining Democrats were gearing up for Thursday night's questions at the Kodak Theater, the home of the Academy Awards ceremonies. ABC and CBS both kicked off their newscast with a Hollywood preview while NBC opened with a Pentagon story instead. Yet the major impact of the day came from extended feature coverage. CBS devoted almost half its newscast to the scandal surrounding the death of Sgt Carmelo Rodriguez, aged 29, of the US Marine Corps.

CBS' Byron Pitts filed a textbook piece of crusading journalism on Sgt Rodriguez. His camera crew was granted access to the man's deathbed just eight minutes before he expired. Pitts showed us the shocking before-and-after pictures of "that once-buff physique" of a "fit gung-ho platoon leader" reduced to an 80lb shell by melanoma. Pitts used Rodriquez' tragedy to illustrate the injustice of a 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres Doctrine, under which active duty military personnel are disqualified from filing lawsuits against the Pentagon.

Rodriguez had been diagnosed with a skin abnormality on his buttock in 1997 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. His physician neglected to recommend any follow up treatment. The so-called wart grew and by 2005, when Rodriguez was serving in Iraq, it was exuding pus. The physician in the field hospital did not treat him, advising him instead to have it seen to five months later when his tour ended. That delay was fatal. The melanoma spread. Rodriguez was forced into retirement. When he died the military did not even pay for his funeral.

Pitts quoted the military's own files confessing to "a major screw-up" yet the Feres Doctrine prohibits any legal redress for the apparent medical malpractice. Pitts concluded his report with a voice quaking with rage, a story that combined human interest, self-evident injustice, bureaucratic self-protection, a potential public policy remedy and the militant involvement of the journalist himself. A classic.


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