May 07, 2004

Abu Ghraib: 1,000 Words

 " new details from the Army's criminal investigation into reports of abuse of Iraqi detainees

 " U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners "

 " the Army's Criminal Investigation Division has focused on these pictures, which may depict male and female soldiers."

 " there are 'credible reports' that there may be photographs of the alleged abuse."

The above was reported by CNN on Jan. 20, more than three months before 60 Minutes broadcast the Abu Ghraib photos and Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker on the extent of the abuse.

Three days before the CNN report, on Jan. 17, the New York Times reported from Washington that "the top American commander in Iraq has ordered a criminal investigation into allegations that detainees at the sprawling Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad have been abused by American forces."

No details of the abuse were reported and the Times didn't run another story on the investigation until May 1, two days after the 60 Minutes report.

Vaughn Ververs raises this question in the NationalJournal.com: "The episode did get us thinking once again about how news becomes news."

I don't agree with Ververs that "there is more than a bit of false outrage on the part of those involved, as well as the media, about the whole story," but his question is valid, as is the answer he supplies: The abuse at Abu Ghraib became a big story when 60 Minutes broadcast the photographs. He writes:

"There is no way to overestimate the impact that visual images have on our world. Still photos or video, we've now reached the point where nothing happened unless it was seen on TV." (Emphasis added.)

That is, of course, correct for the more-than-half of all Americans who don't read a daily newspaper, but it overlooks the powerful impact of the printed word when it is backed by substantive reporting and displayed in prominent fashion.

If the New York Times had not apparently been content to leave the Abu Ghraib issue as a 373-word, Page 7, Saturday story, and had pursued and pushed it onto the front page, then it would have been a daily newspaper and not a weekly TV show and magazine who was leading the reporting on the story.

Neither the New York Times nor CNN followed up on their initial Abu Ghraib stories. I'm sure people in each organization are asking why. Newspapers must be more aggressive. They have more resources, more reporters and more space than any other news medium.

What matters most these days for newspapers is the quality of their work. Everything else is media noise. As Ververs says about the news media in general:

"In this country, there are three broadcast news organizations, three 24-hour cable news networks, a dozen or so major papers, dozens more mid-major papers and even more news magazines. Yet aside from feature stories on women's health or the 'Fleecing of America,' most cover the same news day after day, week after week." (Emphasis added.)

To make a difference, newspapers must differentiate themselves from the crowd. If they don't, they're destined to continue writing Page 1 stories whose first graph contains the words "according to 60 Minutes" or "Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker."

UPDATE: The Financial Times reports that "the US media was slow to jump on allegations of abuse by American soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison."

Links
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Posted by Tim Porter at May 7, 2004 09:32 AM
Comments

Nobody looks good in all this ... I can't help thinking we're supposed to have this highly motivated, professionalized military, yet they are dumb enough to preserve photographic evidence of their transgressions, burn them on CDs and send them around to their friends.

Did it never occur to any of these mental giants to ask, "what happens when '60 Minutes' gets ahold of these pictures?"


Posted by: tom on May 7, 2004 10:59 AM

This is a wonderful blog. I enjoy your posts.

I have been very surprised to say the least at how little attention the media pays to rather important stories. I don't see a lot of follow up. They seem to just report what is handed to them especially in matters of government.

It's a good thing that even idiots carry around digital cameras.

Please check out the reports from Baghdad from Dahr Jamail. He is an independent Alaskan journalist who reports what's really going on.

Posted by: blondesense on May 7, 2004 11:46 AM

Good point about the impact of the images. Note that officials in Washington still seem to refer as often to the photos as they do to the abuse. Some seem to be as ashamed about having evidence as they do about the fact that utterly evil crimes were committed on their watch.

Posted by: John on May 7, 2004 04:53 PM

I always enjoy your deeper analysis, Tim,

I survived two compulsory years in the communist Czechoslovak army where bastardisation became institutionalised and where an absurd viscious circle became part of our daily lives.

Where there is no sunlight many cruel habits grow and are accepted as normal...

I just read this story and wonder whether it will become as widely read as it deserves to be.

Physical and sexual abuse of prisoners, similar to what has been uncovered in Iraq, takes place in American prisons with little public knowledge or concern

Posted by: Jozef on May 9, 2004 01:23 AM
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