Mojo - August 2007

Canadian Controversy Over Mother Jones' Article of a Doctor's Account of Cpl. Megeney's Death: The Editors Respond

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 2:36 PM EDT

There's a lot of controversy in Canada over the Mother Jones article by Dr. Kevin Patterson, "Talk to Me Like My Father: Frontline Medicine in Afghanistan," published in our July/August issue.

This 7,000 word diary of Dr. Patterson's time serving at the military hospital at Kandahar Air Field culminates with a scene in which Dr. Patterson (a Canadian) is on call when Canadian Cpl. Kevin Megeney, who'd just been accidentally shot by another soldier in his own tent, was brought in to the ER. Cpl. Megeney arrived unconscious, his pupils fixed and dilated. Dr. Patterson and the other doctors at hand tried to do what they could—including opening his chest with a "clamshell incision"—but the bullet had entered his heart.

The controversy started when the The News—a community paper that serves Pictou County, Nova Scotia, where parts of the Megeney family live—reported that George Megeney, Cpl. Megeney's uncle, was upset that Dr. Patterson described the methods used to try to save his nephew, and did not disguise his identity:

"Had he not identified Kevin, it would have been bad enough," he said. The use of the soldier's name – and lack of permission from the family to identify him – has Megeney questioning the author's ethics.
He said the first the family heard of the article was when he and Kevin's parents received a letter from Mother Jones advising them that the magazine was publishing a story with graphic content about the death, and offering to send them copies of the magazine prior to publication.

Which is more or less correct. But what The News failed to report (in part because it didn't talk to us or Dr. Patterson) in its initial article was that I spoke to Cpl. Megeney's mother at length by phone and that even after reading the article, some members of the immediate family wrote us to thank us for publishing the article and Dr. Patterson for doing all he could to try to save Cpl. Megeney. Here's the response that I posted on our website after a few people who'd read The News article wrote in to express their outrage:

As the co-editor of Mother Jones, I would like to make a few things clear in regards to the part of this story that involves Cpl. Kevin Megeney. First, we sent a letter to Cpl. Megeney's parents, uncle, and sisters, ahead of publication, informing them that this 7,000 word diary of a doctor's month of service at Kandahar Air Field did contain a scene involving the tragic death of their son. That it was written by a doctor present when Cpl. Megeney was brought in for emergency surgery, and that it would likely be disturbing to those close to him. We offered to send it to them or any intermediary they would like if they thought it would be too disturbing to read it themselves.
I then spoke with Mrs. Megeney by phone at length. She assured me that the family would like to see the article, and that she was a nurse and would read it before any other members of her family; she said it would help to have closure to know more about what happened. We heard from other members of the family who also wanted to read it, and some whom, after they did, expressed the desire to write to Dr. Patterson "to express my appreciation to him for exhausting every effort to save [him]." They asked that we link to Cpl. Megeney's memorial site, which we were already planning on doing, so our readers would have a chance to express their condolences [they've since asked that it be removed. See below].
As to the question of anonymity: The death of Cpl. Megeney was an extremely well covered story in Canada. There was no way to write about the incident and not have it be instantly clear to any member of his family or any member of the Canadian press, or anyone who'd followed the story who we were talking about simply by omitting his name. So we felt it would be false anonymity at best. Doctors can and do publicly talk about how patients die when the story is already in the news--consider press conferences following tragic accidents. And there was certainly nothing in this account that disparaged Cpl. Megeney, who served his country admirably and died in a tragic accident.
This was an extremely emotional story to work on. The account of Cpl. Megeney's death was particularly poignant, but there were many other stories in there of death and injury to soldiers and civilians that are hard to read. But in our opinion for the greater public to live in denial about what happens in a war does a disservice to those soldiers who serve and the civilians who are affected.

I could go into greater detail about our correspondence with the Megeney family, but I'm not going to. They have the right to disagree amongst themselves or to change their minds, individually or collectively, about their reaction to the article. And they have a right to express those views publicly. Their loss and their grief is their own.

But now, perhaps emboldened by (or having stirred up) this controversy, the Canadian military has announced that it will investigate if Dr. Patterson—who is a veteran of the Canadian army but went over there as a civilian because the Canadian army (like our own) is running out of enlisted doctors—violated any military rules or ethics by writing about the event. (No one, I might add, is questioning the factual basis of the article, which was rigorously fact-checked. Just whether it was okay to recount the facts.)

Now, I can't look into the military's heart and know why it is investigating Dr. Patterson. But I can say that in multiple conversations I've had in the past 24 hours with various members of the Canadian press, they've all told me off the record that they a) thought the article was great, sensitive to all parties, and responsible b) an antidote to the sanitized coverage of the war c) that the Canadian military was mostly upset because this kind of realistic account of the war (or any war) "hurts recruiting," and d) they get upset whenever they can't control the press. Particularly around a friendly-fire incident, as the Pat Tillman incident has taught Americans quite well.

I can however speak to Dr. Patterson's character, which is being maligned by some on various comments boards. I've known Dr. Patterson for nearly a decade. In addition to serving Canada in the military as young man, he took the risk to go to Afghanistan and treat allied personnel and Afghan civilians. He's also worked in Inuit and tropical communities treating TB patients (which he wrote about in "The Patient Predator" for Mother Jones; the reporting inspired his novel Consumption, which has just come out to rave reviews.). In sum, he's not only a great writer, but a truly fine human being. Were I, or anyone I loved, sick or injured, I could only hope to come under the care of someone as compassionate as he.

And on the subject of compassion: At the Megeney family's request, we've removed the link to Kevin Megeney's memorial site as some people on our site—that means you, "Jackie"—were using it to mock the family. Those posts have been deleted and we will continue to monitor. I would ask any visitor to our site that no matter what your feelings about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq that you not conflate your political opinions with other people's loss.

You can read more about the controversy at the Globe and Mail here and subsequent comments, where I've weighed in, but that has mostly deteriorated into a shouting match about the war itself here. A CBC radio interview with Dr. Patterson can be found here. And an account by the (Nova Scotia) Chronicle Herald, is here. More from The News here and here. And of course people have weighed in on our site here.

You can also view a photo essay by Canadian photographer Lana Slezic on the plight of women in Afghanistan. And CNN terror analyst and Taliban expert Peter Bergen lists ten reasons why the war in Afghanistan is starting to look more like Iraq here.

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Live-Blogging the Big Forum (Circus?): The Candidates Meet on Stage

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 2:16 PM EDT

Next up, a forum of the presidential candidates. I'll try my best to live blog. When the candidates were introduced a moment ago, there was a standing ovation with wild applause. In fact, Barack Obama got a standing ovation from a portion of the crowd when it was announced that today is his birthday – some people even sung.

This is going to get rowdy.

The Presidentials Land at YearlyKos - Hillary Clinton Edition

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 12:48 PM EDT

The secret service cars are out front and the mainstream media has shown up in force, so you know it's time for the big boys. Hillary Clinton, who is up first, provides the most compelling story lines here at YearlyKos. As Kos himself admitted in a press conference a few moments ago, "Her negatives in this community are fairly high." She isn't seen as a true progressive, nor as someone willing to stand strong for her principles when it is politically inexpedient. But as Kos admitted, Clinton has moved strongly in the last year to engage the netroots and bring down those negatives.

Will she get hit for being the most moderate of all the candidates, or will she get kudos for trending in the right direction? Or, as has the case been throughout this convention, will the crowd be polite, respectful, and almost bland? Stay tuned…

Update: Half an hour into HRC's speech. The senator is continuing the netroots lovefest started yesterday by the mainstream media. "Let me start by saying something unexpected," she said. "Thank you. You have built the modern progressive movement in America. What you have done in a real short amount of time is fight back against the right wing noise machine."

"We have suffered from a real imbalance in the political world," said the senator, and that doesn't just mean the right has more organizations, think tanks, and media outlets than the left. The right actually runs what they have better. "The fact is, they were better organized, more mission-driven, and better prepared," she said. The netroots are remedying the problem and giving the left a chance.

Kos: "We Are in the Mainstream of America"

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 12:04 PM EDT

Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, known to webbies and the folks here in Chicago simply as Kos, doesn't have a direct connection to YearlyKos. Though the event bears his name, it was started by followers of his website, DailyKos.

Because of his high-profile spats with Bill O'Reilly and others, Kos is often the center of attention on the blogosphere, but he's remained mostly out of sight here at the McCormick Center. In a press conference today — one of his few ventures into the spotlight; a speech tonight will be another — Kos specifically pointed out that the focus is the 1,500 folks in attendance, the "super-engaged activists" that are rapidly changing politics and campaigns.

"This really is democracy in action. This is regular Americans using technology to get engaged in politics," said Kos. Never one for understatement, he continued, "And anybody who attacks that, I think, hates democracy. I think it's that simple."

While fiery rhetoric like that won't keep Kos out of the spotlight for long, what's far more important is opening up the system, he says. "For those who want to engage, [the blogosphere] is the ideal medium. Before, if you wanted to be engaged in politics, you were limited to writing a check, or watching a 30 second political spot, or voting on election. Maybe you got to lick envelopes. Now people are realizing that they have a say in politics." And it's probably most important for those that live in deep red or deep blue states. "[The political establishment] would only pay attention to you is if you were in a battleground district. You had activists nationwide who wanted to engaged, but were shut out of the process." Now, through Politics 2.0, the people are a part of that process.

Democratic Party Bails on Simply Unable to Attend YearlyKos

| Sat Aug. 4, 2007 9:07 AM EDT

Four of the Democratic Party's heavies cancelled their much-anticipated group session this morning at YearlyKos. Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel are unable to attend, we're told, because voting has been held open over the weekend on an energy bill in the House. Question: Don't Pelosi and Emanuel schedule things like voting on bills? Pelosi is the Speaker of the House, after all.

Sens. Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid are unable to attend for unspecified reasons. Such a shame. The establishment and the netroots got along so well at yesterday's Time party.

Update: I just spoke to a House staffer in DC who tells me Pelosi and Emanuel's absense here in Chicago is entirely legitimate. The energy bill, with important renewables amendments included, needs to be passed immediately, because congressmen are slowing drifting out of DC for the August recess. Pelosi could pass the bill today, or perhaps not at all. No explanation on Schumer and Reid.

Second update: Word on the street is that Reid and Schumer were in session until late last night and couldn't make their travel arrangements to get to Chicago. Kos, the man behind DailyKos, just mentioned at a press conference that he doesn't mind the lawmakers being absent to hammer out bills. "That's more important than for them to be here. The Democrats are the party of governing, the Republicans are the party of obstruction, and that's playing out right now." I'll have more from Kos' presser later today.

YearlyKos Attendees: Normal!

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 5:24 PM EDT

Want to point you in the direction of two bloggers who have made good points about the atmosphere here at YearlyKos. First, Matt Yglesias:

...it's not even totally clear to me that's there's an especially logical or organic connection to bloggers and blogging in play here. Obviously, that's the causal origin of the gathering. But bloggers are interested in the issues, and an awful lot of what's going on here is just around issues -- foreign policy, telecom policy, education, church/state issues, whatever -- issues that activists care about whether on- or off-line.

That sounds completely right to me. Some events and seminars here are about blogging, but just as many, if not more, are just about policy, the realities of politics in the world today, and various social issues.

The other, Hendrik Hertzberg:

I was expecting this crowd to look weirder. Not hippie weirder, though I did expect a bit of that, but nerdy weirder. So I was surprised at how extraordinarily normal everyone looked. The left, if I may use that radioactive word, sure has changed since "my day," i.e., the nineteen-sixties and early seventies... No chaos at YearlyKos. No "sweet smell of marijuana," as the straight papers used to refer to it. No demands for revolution. No denunciations of bourgeois democracy. The Democratic National Committee Chairman is listened to respectfully and cheered enthusiastically.

Yup. People are a bit pudgy, a bit bald, and a bit odd: just like most Americans, dare I say. The group here is less diverse than America at large, and much less diverse than Democratic voters as a whole, but that's the only substantial observation to be made about the crowd here in Chicago.

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Insurance Companies Continue to Screw Katrina Victims

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 5:20 PM EDT

Victims of Hurricane Katrina have been screwed so many times. First it was by the local government, then by the federal government, and finally by insurance companies that have been weaseling out of their obligations to policyholders from the start. Yesterday, insult was added to injury when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that insurance companies, including some of the big dogs like Allstate and Travelers, don't have to pay for losses caused by flooding. The policies only cover wind and rain damage.

The shady dealings are sort of fuzzy. Apparently, many of the homeowners were assured that their policies provided full hurricane coverage. Also, some of the houses and businesses were destroyed by wind and rain hours before waters breached the levies and flooded New Orleans. Katrina victims may still have a chance for mercy. The case will head to the Louisiana Supreme Court next, and there are several similar civil suits waiting in the wings.

—Celia Perry

Reno's Makin' Mix Tapes

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 4:48 PM EDT

When Song of America, a three-CD, 50-track journey through centuries' worth of American music hits record stores in September, it comes with a stamp of approval—and an executive producer credit—from former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

No, seriously. Reno put together a bona fide, red-white-and-blue mix tape. To learn more about Reno's music compilation, read the rest of this post on our Arts & Culture blog, The Riff.

Bloggers and MSM: Can't We All Get Along?

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 2:01 PM EDT

Can bloggers and the mainstream media get past their prejudices against one another, and the bitter invective that is a product of that prejudice, and work together to enrich both their work?

That's the question at this panel, "Blogs and the MSM: From Clash to Civilization." Speaking are Mike Allen, chief political correspondent for Politico; Jill Filipovic from Feministe; Jay Carney, Time Washington bureau chief; and Glenn Greenwald, author, pundit, and blogosphere superstar.

Allen claims that the days when the MSM thought the bloggers were pajama-wearing wahoos are over. There was initial suspicion on both sides, because motives were unknown and everyone looked new and strange. But now, says Allen, we're heading towards an increasingly symbiotic relationship.

Greenwald takes a very different (and less conciliatory) tack. He points out that while many establishment journalists blog (see Time's Swampland) and many bloggers have been co-opted by the traditional media (see Greenwald's work for Salon), there is still a vast difference between how the groups approach the government (reverential vs. skeptical) and how willing they are to state the truth when it is harsh (for example, no establishment media actually stated the NSA wiretapping program was a violation of an American law, which it was, when it was revealed). Greenwald followed Allen and Carney's kind words for the blogosphere by ripping the media, Time and Politico specifically, at great length.

Take home point from Greenwald: Journalists think bloggers want them to become partisan. Actually, bloggers just want journalists to be adversarial and skeptical.

Now they're opening the floor to questions — Allen and Carney are going to get killed. I've got a question for Carney, but the lines are about ten deep at each microphone, so I'm not going to get a chance to ask it. I'll put it here: "Time magazine's columnists currently include Joe Klein, Bill Kristol, and Peter Beinart, all men who supported the war in Iraq. My question is, how badly does one need to screw up to lose plum media positions?"

Doctors Who Deny IVF Are Not Choosing Life

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 12:17 PM EDT

Doctors refusing to perform abortions. Standard. (The procedure isn't even taught in medical schools.) Doctors refusing to provide fetal tissue for stem cells, pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions. All of these things happen based on peoples' belief that providing such services threatens unborn life. And as much as I don't agree with these decisions, I get it (sort of). If these people feel, really feel, that lives are threatened by their action, then following through is a difficult choice.

But how about when doctors refuse to perform, not abortions, not stem-cell procedures, but in vitro fertilization, which actually helps create life? The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which two doctors refused a woman IVF treatment because she's a lesbian. Which means that they felt that Guadalupe Benitez and her partner (whom Elizabeth Weil wrote about for Mother Jones last year) did not have the right to the life they hold so dear.

The case, which began in 2001 with Benitez claiming that the doctors violated California's anti-discrimination laws, is seen as one of the most controversial the Court has heard in years. The doctors were not refusing a service—they routinely performed IVF on other patients—but instead cited religious beliefs in this specific instance. The court could find that doctors will have to take an "all-or-nothing" approach, which would mean loss of lucrative IVF business if such doctors stick to their religious standards.

The doctors' defense all along has been that they didn't perform the procedure because Benitez is unmarried. (Benitez has said, under oath, that the doctors told her it was because of her sexual orientation.) Okay, so let's give them their defense for a sec. Do they then support gay marriage so that newborn life can be cherished? And how come they have religious objection to IVF for unmarried women, but are fine with assisting in the production of up to a dozen excess embryos per woman they treat? These embryos now number half a million nationwide; they're sitting frozen in storage and are most likely destined to be destroyed.

The Choose Life argument doesn't wash when the same moral high ground is used to deny it.