Abu Ghraib: The Big Lie Is Working–Part 1

The Rolling Stone article detailing the abuses at Abu Ghraib ended the drought of news stories about the torture inflicted by American soldiers, intelligence agents, and civilian contractors since CBS’ 60 Minutes‘ pictures and Seymour Hersh’s original charges ignited the firestorm in May, and the obvious questions are being raised: Where have all the reporters gone? Why did it take a rock magazine to break this story–again? The trials of the AG6 are under way, revelations are coming out daily that clearly describe a pattern of abuse and suggest that the pattern had been ordered from above, and yet our media has gone off the story. Why?

A long essay in The American Journalism Review by senior writer Sherri Ricchiardi attempts to get to the bottom of this puzzling (to her) widespread abrogation of journalistic duty. ‘Missed Signals’ catalogs a series of reasons, excuses, and rationalizations given by media reps that makes for depressing reading, particularly when they’re trying to explain away the lack of coverage after the initial blizzard of articles came under attack from the Mighty Wurlitzer of the right wing. To some extent, one can credit their slowness in picking up on the story in the first place.

After chronicling the sequence of ‘red flags’ that barely raised an eyebrow (‘ In November, the Associated Press was among the first to raise alarms about abuse at Abu Ghraib – but few of the AP’s clients showcased the story, if they ran it at all.’), Ricchiardi asks, ‘Why did it take so long for the news media to uncover the scandal? What went wrong?’ The answers are instructive.

#WaPo Exec Editor Leonard Downie: On Jan 16, Baghdad command issued a one paragraph press release that said, ‘An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse’–no details. Downie gives Excuse #1: ‘They Didn’t Dump It In Our Laps.’

“Have you ever read that paragraph? They made it as innocent-sounding as possible, and it just wasn’t noticed the way it should have been.”

Excuse me but didn’t it used to be a reporter’s job to read between the lines? What was Downie expecting, a press release that said, ‘American soldiers are systematically torturing, raping, and occasionally killing Iraqi prisoners in an effort to obtain information from them’? There is a rather bizarre tendency abroad in the land these days that extends to police depts as much as to would-be journalists: if it doesn’t walk through the door and fall in your lap it a) doesn’t exist, or b) isn’t important. This is called ‘laziness’ but they see it as ‘efficiency’: it takes a lot less time to print what’s handed to you than it does to chase something down.

# NPR foreign editor Loren Jenkins, talking about the administration’s approach to news-handling, gives us Excuse #2: ‘They Manipulated Us.’

‘”I have never seen greater news management in 30-plus years in this business. They are very skilled at it.”

Again, isn’t it a journalist’s job to see through that? Or at least question it? Hasn’t Jenkins had enough experience to know when news is being manipulated? You’d think 30+ years would be sufficient training. Jenkins admits as much:

“But that’s what the Fourth Estate is all about – poking holes in news management,” says Jenkins, who covered the Vietnam War. “Our job is to find out whether we’re being told the truth or not.”Yet, when it comes to Abu Ghraib, “basically we couldn’t get at the story,” he admits. “We all had people telling us about mistreatment, but it was hard to verify on our own. It took the pictures to say, ‘This is undeniable.’

Jenkins is actually onto something there: One of the biggest reasons reporters and editors ignored this story was that they just flat couldn’t believe it–couldn’t believe that American soldiers would be ordered to torture prisoners to obtain information, couldn’t believe that they would so easily and comfortably obey those orders. The American press ignored the signals in large part because their view of what America was and how it treated those in its charge was a fantasy that didn’t allow for such things as turture and cruelty. ‘That’s not who we are,’ as Kerry said recently. This is called ‘naivete’ and is a dangerous indulgence for a reporter, but they think of it as ‘patriotism’: waving the flag gets you a lot more positive feedback than pointing out that it has a hole in it.

# LAT Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus, and Excuse #3: ‘We Were Busy Covering Other Stories.’

“We can’t fault our reporters in Iraq for not dropping everything else they were doing to get this story. If one of those reporters had said, ‘This is the tip of the iceberg,’ which we now know it was, it’s possible we would have put some more resources into it and done more digging. But I don’t think they realized there was an iceberg underneath.”

How could they? They didn’t look. And even when somebody did look, everyone ignored what they saw.

Asked [by Ricchiardi–MA] if the L.A. Times had run a story after the January 16 press release about the abuse probe, McManus turned to his computer. He quickly found a 15-inch piece by a Times reporter that had run on page A6 titled “Coalition investigating prison abuse.” “It was another red flag we didn’t pick up on” in Washington, McManus said of the story. “I’m not happy about that.”

McManus hadn’t thought to do that before he was asked to? Isn’t that the Editor’s job? As most of you know, the Left Blogosphere was all over this almost from the beginning, using European papers and magazines as source-material. They knew enough to be suspicious, to wonder immediately if the soldiers were following orders from higher up, but the Wash b-c of one of the biggest papers in the country ‘didn’t pick up on’ it? This is called ‘willful blindness’, wherein stories that would lead to the reporting of uncomfortable realities that readers don’t want to hear about are conveniently shoved ‘under the radar’ where they can’t damage a paper’s ad revenues. But they call it ‘prioritizing’: reporters can’t cover everything (the news outlets don’t have the budgets for that) and choices have to be made.

# AP reporter Charles J Hanley, offers Excuse #4: ‘I Didn’t Have Time.’

“We were all in a very pressure-filled, difficult situation, trying to cover a very sprawling story. Something like this was not readily available,” says Hanley, who wrote an early but largely ignored story on prisoner mistreatment. “It took me weeks, on and off, to find the released detainees.”

In other words, the huge wire service was understaffed and couldn’t assign him or another reporter full-time to the story. This is called ‘the tyranny of the bottom line’ and news divisions have been suffering from it for years. Even though news shows have far lower production costs than your average sit-com and have been, historically, network cash cows, modern corporate media moguls always want MORE, and cutting salaries and positions is their preferred way of getting it–yet another service provided by Jack ‘The Axe’ Welch and Rupert ‘Why Do We Need Three Reporters Covering the Environment? Fire One and Put the Other One on the Vince Foster Story’ Murdoch to American corporate journalism. They, however, consider it ‘being lean and mean’: corporate investors don’t like to see profits wasted on investigative reporters uncovering stories they’d rather not read–or hear, or see, or know anything about–and they are, after all, The Boss.

# Finally, Marvin Kalb, old-school journalist and presently a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, cuts through the crap and lays out a reason that is close to the truth: ‘It Wasn’t Patriotic.’

[T]he government has played on the patriotism of journalists, raising the terrorism banner to deflect press criticism. That could make a difference in how reporters pursue a story that might embarrass the U.S., particularly when soldiers are dying in a foreign land.”There is an awareness on the part of the White House that this tendency exists, so they go for it, exploit it,” says Kalb. “It isn’t that [the government] beats somebody over the head. They don’t have to. That’s what makes it so much more painful.

“Maybe the rush of patriotism we saw in spades after 9/11 has continued,” he adds. “Maybe editors fell asleep and didn’t ask reporters to pursue obvious lines of inquiry [about Abu Ghraib]. The news industry itself has not been glowingly successful in coverage of the war on terror.”

Possibly the Understatement of the Week. The press has been criminally negligent in WOT coverage if we’re going by Kalb’s ancient ethics, and yet every one of their Excuses are also legitimate realities that today’s reporters and editors will face as long as they’re working in the corporate media. The days when Edward R Murrow’s legacy of courage and integrity dominated the news business are gone, possibly forever. In the corporate media, ‘business’ is the dominant force now; ‘news’ is just another product for sale. The whole concept of ‘news’ as first a public service and a protector of democracy, and second a profit-making enterprise, has been stood on its head. Now the second is considered the sole reason for its existence, and the first has been put out to pasture–integrity is passe in the corporate culture, and public values mean nothing.

There are several Big Lies at work here: News doesn’t matter; the public doesn’t need to know anything it doesn’t want to know; reporters are just employees, not professionals you hire to do a specific job; there’s no conflict between corporate goals and public needs. But perhaps the most important BL is this: Corporations as a whole have no responsibility to contribute anything to the common good, and corporate media in particular have no responsibility as democratic watchdogs; that they exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to make money.

Murrow’s generation understood that this was a Lie; Murdoch’s generation doesn’t.

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