Friday, September 08, 2006

Covering Torture and Detention

I highly recommend the analysis in this month's edition of the Columbia Journalism Review of how the the media has covered the Bush administration's torture/secret detention policies. Unlike the partisan flogging that left and right-wing bloggers are prone to giving the "MSM" from time to time, the article is a very balanced appraisal of how and why the media failed to appreciate the scope and impliations of the Bush administration's torture/detention policies:
But just as sweeping attacks against “the media” are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

Some of the blame falls on the inherent defects of the American media, some on the difficulty presented by covering stone-walling and obfuscating Bush administration officials, some on the unwillingness of media outlets to challenge Bush in the wake of 9/11, and some quite simply on the unwillingness to believe at first what the administration could be up to. Here's an example, referring to the lack of follow-up by other media sources on the Washington Post's story on the abuse and rendition of suspected terrorists:

What’s striking, though, isn’t simply the lack of follow-up but that so few tried. Unlike the ACLU, for example, almost no reporters filed FOIA requests about the detainee system. (The one apparent exception was an enterprising reporter at The New York Sun named Josh Gerstein, who actually beat the ACLU to the punch but had his FOIA request dismissed on a technicality.)

The ACLU’s requests resulted in the organization’s being given thousands of pages of investigative files containing information that, once divulged, prompted numerous front-page stories. The Post simply let Priest and Gellman’s story stand without significant follow-up until after Abu Ghraib. (Three months after the Priest/Gellman story, in March 2003, The New York Times published a piece broadly similar to the Post’s. With softer wording, it was quickly forgotten.)

The failure to file FOIA requests is “something I find terribly embarrassing,” says [Post reporter] Gellman, who points out that the administration’s general antipathy toward FOIA means requests are harder to carry through and often result in little being disclosed. Gellman also stresses that the detainee-abuse story unfolded “just as the Iraq war was becoming inevitable. Iraq took up my life for the next year, as I know it did for many other reporters.”

That tone of regret is laced throughout this story. You get the sense that there are more than a few reporters who wish they had gone back and hit this issue, and so many others, more consistently and with more fervor than they did at the time.

The irony of Abu Ghraib is that compared to what was going on Bagram and in other detention centers God-knows-where-else in the world, the abuse that went on there really was nothing more than fraternity pranks by comparison. But without those infamous pictures showing prisoners being sexually abused, hooded and bound, and made to act like dogs, there would probably still be precious little coverage of what's gone on elsewhere in the world in our name because without the shock value of those pictures, we still couldn't really bring ourselves care or believe that our government could do such a thing to men who were possibly innocent. But even the photos took time to sink into our brains:

What came next was less a media storm than scattered sprinkles. The New York Times covered the story of the photos on page 15, the Los Angeles Times on page 8, and The Washington Post on page 24, though none chose to publish the photos themselves. The photos should have made for compelling TV coverage, but there was no avalanche of coverage there either. Only NBC and, obviously, CBS had segments on the photos the day after.

But the reaction abroad, particularly in the Middle East, was intense. With headlines blaring across the world, and near-endless coverage on Arab networks such as Al Jazeera, President Bush made his first public comments about the abuse two days after the photos aired.

And that is what, finally, lent Abu Ghraib big-story status: not allegations of abuse or even the photos confirming them, but revulsion abroad and the president’s reaction to it.

Now I personally would say that's one moment in time when the press trailed public opinion on this issue. Among many people I knew, there was a palpable sense of shock that this was going on, and some serious reconsidering of what exactly we were doing over in Iraq and the rest of the world before it became possible for some people to rationalize the abuse as the conduct of some "bad apples." But for a majority of the big media sources, the story was how other people reacted to the story.

Anyway, you won't see me sit here and blame the media for not castigating the Bush administration enough. If anyone failed it was all of us, either for supporting these policies, or not fighting against them hard enough. But it's the duty of the media to tell us what's going on so that we can exercise our right to protest or vote out our own leaders. It's a solemn responsibility, and one that the CJR suggests the media failed to live up to.

1 comment:

Nat-Wu said...

It's rather surprising that even at the more critical papers, they sat on these stories or showed no interest in pursuing them. What's wrong with journalism today that they don't take chances like that?