Why Have the Media Ignored the Bergdahl Case?

Why Have the Media Ignored the Bergdahl Case?

By Richard Benedetto - November 21, 2014

What ever happened to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl?  Remember him?  He is the American soldier held for nearly five years by the Taliban after he allegedly walked away from his Army base in Afghanistan.

Amid much media hoopla, President Obama announced in the Rose Garden in late May that Bergdahl was released in exchange for five high-ranking Taliban leaders held at Guantanamo Bay.

The surprise deal set off a fusillade of debate not only in the public and the media over whether the deal was a good one, but also between Capitol Hill and the White House over whether the president had overstepped his authority by negotiating with terrorists and keeping Congress in the dark.

Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said shortly after the Obama announcement, "It comes to us with some surprise and dismay that the [prisoner] transfers went ahead with no consultation, totally not following law." 

Prisoner swap aside, several of Bergdahl’s former fellow platoon members publicly charged that he was a deserter -- that he left his post without permission and endangered the lives of his comrades sent out to search for him.  An Army investigation was launched into the soldier’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, Bergdahl, who after extensive medical and psychiatric testing quietly returned in July to active duty at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, has pretty much disappeared from the mainstream media radar screen. Few seem interested in following up.

In the past few months, the handful of news stories that have followed up say that Brig. Gen. Kenneth Dahl completed his Army investigation of Bergdahl’s capture, but the Pentagon said it is still under review and not ready for release. 

According to an Oct. 9 article in The Hill newspaper, quoting a report in the San Antonio News-Express, Army spokesman Wayne Hall said the review process likely would be lengthy, and that “the Army's priority is ensuring that our process is thorough, factually accurate, impartial, and legally correct.”

Few other news organizations even bothered to report that.

An Oct. 30 editorial in the conservative-leaning Washington Times asked why the report’s release was delayed and speculated that it might have been held until after the midterm elections to further protect Obama’s political hide.

“The Government Accountability Office’s nonpartisan legal analysts have already determined that the prisoner swap was illegal. Now there’s the possibility that Gen. Dahl concluded that Sgt. Bergdahl should be court-martialed, and this would further shine a bright light on President Obama’s incompetence and the ineptitude of his administration,” the editorial said.

The Fox News Network also raised questions last about the Bergdahl report’s delay. Host Sean Hannity re-interviewed Bergdahl’s former platoon members who charged that he deserted.  They reiterated their charges and expressed dismay at the holdup.

The only other recent news story on the matter came Nov. 6 in The Hill, not considered a conservative news source. It reported that Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, said unnamed sources told him the U.S. military unsuccessfully tried to pay a ransom for Bergdahl’s release.

In a Nov. 5 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, The Hill said that Hunter wrote, "It has been brought to my attention that a payment was made to an Afghan intermediary who 'disappeared' with the money and failed to facilitate Bergdahl's release in return."

“Hunter said ‘according to sources’ that the payment was made between January and February 2014 through Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose activities are mostly classified.”  

That story also disappeared into the ether with little to no news media follow-up.  Hotshot investigative reporters who once might have jumped at the chance to sink their teeth into this kind of story mostly sat back and yawned. 

There was a time not so long ago when news editors kept what was known as a “tickler” file.  In it were reminders of certain issues, stories or personalities that needed to be updated and re-examined. In those days, Bergdahl’s name would have been high on the list.  With him out of the news since July, an editor might have said to a reporter, “Let’s find out what Bergdahl’s been doing down there in Texas for the past four months. What is his job? What does he do all day?  How do his fellow soldiers treat him?  Does he have friends?  Does he date?  Does he get any leave? Has he been home to visit his parents?”

The American public, and not just conservatives, would jump at a chance to read a story like that.
How does a reporter go about getting that story?  It’s not easy, but it is doable. It takes time, patience and a lot of shoe leather trying to find people who will talk and provide the information. That kind of reporting seems to be in dwindling supply in this New Media era where talking heads, bloggers and social media tweeters take precedence over the work of on-the-ground reporters. And the American public is all the poorer for it.

What did ever happen to Bowe Bergdahl?

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies at George Mason University. You can follow him on Twitter at @benedettopress.


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