By: Dave Astor
Dana Priest, the Washington Post reporter who helped break the story of neglected soldiers and poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, thanked editorial cartoonists for their followup work on that scandal.
“Your work provided the cultural cement that embedded the story in the country’s psyche,” she told Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention attendees who traveled to the Post building Thursday to hear Priest speak. “You put the punctuation mark on the sentences we constructed.”
Priest, who collaborated with Anne Hull on the Walter Reed expose, also discussed some of the misadventures involved in the investigation. For instance, she recalled being given directions to drive into the hospital complex, and got hopelessly lost. It turned out that there were two entrances, and she was using the other one.
The speaker also thanked editorial cartoonists for their work on an earlier story she was involved with — that of America’s secret overseas prison sites for torturing alleged terrorist suspects. Priest, who won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for that 2005 investigation, said some cartoonists did strong drawings on that “black site” subject when a number of other media people and government officials were criticizing the Post more for doing the story than they were criticizing the CIA and the Bush administration for the secret torture sites.
“There were calls for my imprisonment, and I received many e-mails calling me a traitor,” remembered Priest. “It became a lonely time.”
Some of the press has become a little more skeptical of President Bush since his approval ratings plummeted to record lows, but Priest wishes more skepticism was allowed in the mainstream media in 2002 and 2003. “Look what happened when we didn’t push hard enough on WMD before the war,” she said.
Priest also shared some memories of legendary Post cartoonist Herbert Block (1909-2001). She recalled that Herblock would hang a mistletoe at the door when holding his Christmas party to benefit the Children’s Hospital in Washington.
“He sprang up out of his chair and gave me a huge wet kiss,” Priest said. “The guy was old even then. After the initial shock wore off, I told myself, ‘he’s Herblock, he’s a cartoonist.’ Political cartoonists can get away with all kinds of things, and I’m glad you do.” The Post reporter did explain that she was referring to the work of cartoonists, rather than condoning kissing in the workplace.
An exhibit of Post editorial pages featuring Herblock’s cartoons was mounted just off the room where Priest spoke, and several of his original drawings could separately be seen in the newspaper’s 15th Street lobby. One 1950 cartoon featured the word “McCarthyism,” which Herblock is credited with coining.
Priest opened her speech by noting: “When we have journalism conferences, we all talk about the Web ad nauseam. I’m not going to talk about the Web today!”