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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Monday, May 10, 2004

Journos agree: no photo, no story

On January 16, we got the Centcom press release. It was short, but clearly smelt to high heaven of rat. At that point, I'd have expected specialist hacks to have leapt into action, chivvying USG unmercifully for answers, haunting US prisons in Iraq for titbits from off-duty guards and interrogators...

No, I wouldn't, actually. Hope against hope, perhaps; expect, no.

Now, the record - the journalistic output from newspaper and broadcast hacks in the period from January 16 onwards [1] - cannot lie. Unfortunately, the record is also inaccessible to those of us without Nexis.

There has been a flurry of pieces in the US media in the last day or two on the treatment of the story: Romenesko - who else? - collects the URLs. But, of those pieces, only a couple pick up the media sloth angle [2].

David Folkenflik of the Baltimore Sun [3] is mitigating (May 8):
Did the media miss the story? Not exactly. It was reported but stayed largely under the radar for lack of information and the distraction of other troubling developments in Iraq to cover.

He says
Some outlets - such as CNN and The Miami Herald - filed what now seem prescient pieces.

No details given - he presumably would have taken the pieces from Nexis, and would not therefore necessarily have needed the URLs - lacking any searchables [4], it's hard to check his appreciation [see later].

He quotes Carol Rosenberg of the Herald that
there was no clear-cut evidence, nor any easy way to find abuse victims whose stories could be verified. The military kept tight controls on the inquiry, releasing few details. And later the Pentagon fought to keep the graphic pictures from reaching the public eye, repeatedly urging CBS News to delay its broadcast.

The obsession with official sources manifest there: NGOs are as likely as journos to be suckered by sob-stories that grind their axes; but, by January 16, they will have heard a lot of them, and be in a position - wow! - to cross-check what they'd been told. I'm sure, if they'd been asked nicely by the hacks, they'd have shared what they had.

That clearly wasn't good enough for American hacks, whose pens move only on the word of a USG suit.

Folkenflik looks at the period from January 16 to April 28 - there were one or two even more suggestive USG statements in that time - and says
a database search shows scant follow-up by network television newscasts or major newspapers.

He quotes Matthew Storin [5], former editor of The Boston Globe:
"Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper other than The New York Times or The Washington Post knows that oftentimes stories are missed that have been reported" elsewhere

And ends
The subject of abuse by U.S. troops faded - until the pictures surfaced on CBS.

Not to miss are David Frum's monkey shines on Howard Kurtz's shuffle show. Specimen:
If -- if there were an alternate universe in which the story could have been covered without images, in which they could -- in which modern technology and the modern ways we do things made it possible to report the facts, that there were abuses, there was an investigation and to leave the images out, that would be a service to the nation, because these images have done tremendous damage to the United States.

And I think a lot of people in the news business, maybe there is a part of them that says, "I understand that these images hurt the country. And I don't want to -- I don't want to be first. I don't want to be first." Seymour Hersh, he wanted to be first. But the rest of us, we don't want to be first.

The Catskills' loss is our gain.

UPI's Pamela Hess makes a somewhat more plausible point:
there is actually one particular sensitivity of Pentagon reporters, that a lot of us have sources that are in the military. We know them. And -- and there's a great deal of trust that goes between us. I think the Pentagon reporters, we did feel particular shame for them.

Call it Stockholm syndrome or regulatory capture - or human nature. The Pentagon interlocutors of defence correspondents are not the people in USG bent on world domination: why shouldn't they evoke sympathy in the hacks?

On the other hand, those interlocutors wouldn't have been in the firing line; the hacks had a job to do; they had editors tasked to get them to do that job. It's not exactly Sophie's Choice.

Kurtz gives us a namecheck for the CNN report: Barbara Starr. Google pulls up her report from January 21:
U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners, a Pentagon official told CNN on Tuesday.

She has three sources - names? be serious! - for the existence of photos, one of which - a senior official .states the location of the incidents being investigated as Abu Ghraib prison.

Starr by name... What else were the hacks of America waiting for?

Hess tells Kurtz - what else? -
without those pictures, you don't have much of a story.

How to characterise the excuse? At one end, I leave room (not much!) for the possibility that this is a good faith belief of the editoriat of America's news media. At the other, that it was selected - perhaps, even, on the suggestion of USG operatives - as a pretext for inaction by media conniving with USG to minimise coverage of the prisoner abuse story, in exchange for favours unknown.

Some actual evidence, as ever, would come in handy.

  1. Of course, NGOs had been writing reports on the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq since the middle of 2003 - my piece of May 7. But I'm being charitable: the January 16 press release was an admission from USG that there was something to investigate. It was official. And we know how much store journos set by the official word on any subject.

  2. Several deal with reader argy-bargy on the selection and placement of the photos in their newspaper.

  3. Here before on April 27 with sound words on anonymice.

  4. The name Abu Ghraib wasn't in the press release.

  5. Odd coincidence: Mattie Storin is the spunky girl journo in the British political novel House of Cards (by ex-Thatcher operative Michael Dobbs) who tangles with the villainous Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart. In the novel, she kills him; in the TV adaptation, vice versa.

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