The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, May 07, 2004

Abu Ghraib: no pictures, no story

What was news about Abu Ghraib?

It's the Big Story, and it's about Iraq [1] - two good reasons for me to stay away.

About the substance, I'll continue to do so. But I'm curious about the journalism, in particular, the timing.

We had 60 Minutes II which broadcast the story on April 28; and Seymour Hersh, whose story went up on the New Yorker site, according to the page, on April 30.

If I understand matters aright [2], Hersh had the leaked Taguba report (PDF) plus some (or all?) of the snaps, whereas CBS had snaps but not the report. The sidebar that is the DOD's, and CJCS Richard Meyer's, request to CBS to hold off running the story seemed motivated particularly by the feared impact of the screening of the photos.

Thus, Hersh's news was the content of the leaked report, together with supplemental reporting; 60 Minutes' was the photos.

But the story of abusive treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq had been out there for months: Amnesty International's report of July 23 2003, for instance.

And the investigation that culminated in the Taguba report was announced by Centcom on January 16. There is supposedly a press briefing on that day by Brig Gen Kimmitt, but there's nothing in the list on the Centcom site [3].

An analysis of the way the story was handled by US media at the time would require Nexis (the real thing): I note a piece from the New York Times of January 17 by Eric Schmitt (reprint) which includes details - the name Abu Ghraib, for instance - not included in the January 16 press release, which is mild corroboration of the mystery press briefing.

I can trace no follow-up in the NYT in the following few weeks. The Washington Post does not seem to have covered the January 16 announcement at all.

There are all sorts of loose ends: for instance, the Chicago Tribune's Christine Spolar asked a question at the February 26 briefing about
these 17 military personnel who have been, I guess, in detention of some kind or suspended for a while, under investigation for mistreatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib

Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez stonewalls:
on the 17 personnel that have been suspended, they are suspended from their duties while we continue to conduct the investigation. The investigation is not complete at this point in time, and therefore I can't give you any more information than that.

No sign that I can see that Spolar wrote anything on the exchange; clearly, the investigation was on her list of current topics.

In the March 20 briefing, a couple of CNN guys chivvied Kimmitt about access to Abu Ghraib, and were referred to the ICRC. (Kimmitt's opening statement mentions that the report on Abu Ghraib was complete but not approved. During the briefing, there were a few questions on the report, but nothing resembling a press pack.)

Even from this sketchy and inadequate treatment of the history of the story, it's clear that the problem of detainee abuse has been on the agenda for the best part of a year; and that, following the January 16 announcement of an investigation, journos in Iraq kept the matter in mind.

But, until the photos emerged, the story was evidently not ready for publication [4]. At least, not as the splash that it was once the photos were available.

Now, clearly a journo is looking for corroboration - and more than a nominal second source - for allegations as serious as those detailed in the Taguba report. But lots of equally serious stories run each year in the NYT and WaPo which rely on anonymous sources - and don't have photographic evidence attached!

There are other factors: we have, without the photos, a bunch of unsavoury foreigners badmouthing US service personnel. Since the DOD would naturally be expected to close ranks, and the inclination of the public to do likewise, editors would naturally be inclined to stay away from the story on grounds of reader appeal. Or to use the fact that a report on issue was pending to postpone detailed coverage until the report became available.

And there's pressure from USG: the direct requests from the DOD have been acknowledged. But, more generally, the barrage from the various batteries of USG spinners that a news report in February, say, could have been expected to unleash would have been a deterrent.

The only detailed pre-photo piece dealing with Abu Ghraib abuses that I can find is the March 3 2004 Salon piece.

Vaughan Ververs in the National Journal (May 7) has a why, oh why?
How many other stories are out there like this? How many stories just go to die on page A23 on a regular basis, only to be rejuvenated later on page one? How much effort would it have taken for an intrepid reporter to look further into the charges when they were announced in January?

We've looked here before at the vital importance of placement: A1 is a memo to the White House (February 10) while A23 is for wrapping fish.

But I think it's more complicated. If the Salon piece is representative of what could have been achieved without photos, one can well imagine why the top papers passed on the story. On a first skim, it elicits something of the reflex incredulity of Landesman's sex slaves article much discussed here: a feature style, plenty of authorial first person, foreign names, do-gooding organisations.

On the other hand, the shock-horror tone in most of the reaction - from Congress, for instance - is clearly largely synthetic. Even if is weren't dotted sufficiently for a NYT lead, it looks as if there was ample prima facie evidence - from the NGOs and the Centcom briefings, as well as the Salon piece, that bad things were going on at Abu Ghraib.

Were there any Congressional investigations into the prison launched before 60 Minutes aired those photos?

What is truly objectionable about the furore about the Abu Ghraib case is that the public should be led to think that CBS broke a story out of the blue. Partly the result of assiduous spin, partly an artefact of the news process, this untruth - which lets journos and pols off the hook - ought to be corrected.

Beware low-flying porkers...

  1. Over time, I've developed a kinda-sorta self-denying ordinance about covering countries whose language I can't read.

  2. Baltimore Sun of May 5, Counterpunch May 4.

  3. Billmon has a good deal of interesting stuff on the matter.

  4. Interesting transcripts from the Charlie Rose Show - I don't know it - with Hersh and 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes. Hersh says:
    ...if there hadn't been photographs, General Karpinski...would still be there.

    ...There had been many...Iraqis...talking to the press about abuses. I had heard an awful lot about it from an Iraqi last fall, some things that were going on in the prison. You just couldn't get a handle on it.

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