Thursday, May 13, 2004

Media Watch

Watch the media in the coming weeks. I've been in journalism for 21 years, and the Abu Ghraib story is the Perfect Storm for writers and editors who like to cloak an editorial jab as a news story.

Here's an example of how it works, from the AP "lawmaker react" story in Wednesday's cycle:

" 'I saw cruel, sadistic torture,' said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who said some of the images were of male prisoners masturbating."

Now, I presume that howler (such things used to be called "boners," but we'll not go there) is an innocent mistake. But it shows how media reporting of the Abu Ghraib story, and the reaction to it, can be both true and misleading. The nature of the story invites the equivalent of the prison abuse itself: humiliation under the cover of legitimate work.

Two aspects of the story allow this:

1. The initial evidence presented last week, the photos and videos, showed actions that, in themselves, were abusive. In themselves, some of them reminded many people (not only Rush Limbaugh) less of war crimes and more of knucklehead fraternity pranks or "Jackass" routines.

In the context of a prisoner of war situation, even the mildly brutalizing activities depicted crossed the line into torture. But to some civilians not well acquainted with the Geneva Conventions, this was not at first clear. In the context of what the U.S. and its allies are attempting to do in Iraq, the images were tragically destructive. Some people who had pinned their hopes on that mission at first suffered a denial reaction before realizing what they were seeing, and its consequences.

2. The "worst," which Rumsfeld promised us last week, is starting to transpire. Congress members this week saw a whole batch of fresh photos and videos, some of which are said to be much more shocking than the first set -- showing rape, unmistakable torture, and even murder.

Yet this new set is a mix of images -- apparently the Pentagon simply took whole computer and camera disks as evidence, and sat the Senators down for a slide show of everything it found on them, including scenes of U.S. soldiers having sex with one another (not a Geneva Conventions offense) and just plain tourist-type shots of Iraqi scenery.

In addition, spurious images and stories have turned up in media outlets unable or insufficiently willing distinguish Photoshop work from genuine pictures -- the Boston Globe and a German television network both published images that later turned out to be hoaxes.

At the same time, the list of treatments meted out at Abu Ghraib includes some that most civilians would find unpleasant (shuffling food and sleep schedules, creating an anticipation of real violence without doing it) that were sanctioned by the U.S. authorities as within the range of what they believe international law allows. Other things done at the prison, however, left U.S. authorities shocked and revolted.

What interests me is that people you see quoted in news stories may be reacting to any one of these aspects, and their quotes may be reported accurately. Yet by juxtaposing their quotes with images or descriptions from another level of the crisis, they can be made to appear as foolish as Rep. Harman looked in the AP paragraph.

And it may not be an innocent mistake. In the AP story, after the Harman graph, the writer (Pauline Jelinek) gives the most graphic description in the entire story, detailing the worst of what was shown -- sexual abuse of women, prisoners forced to commit the most heinous sex acts on themselves and one another, beating, blood.

And this is immediately followed by Tom Delay's quote that, "some people are overreacting. The people who are against the war are using this to their political ends." I'm no friend of Tom Delay, but I don't think he was answering a question like, "what do you think about the reaction to the worst of the worst?"

All along, in this story, people in power or on the sidelines have been reacting to what they've seen; but the list of what they've seen has changed from person to person and over time.

This allows a journalist to do his job of telling the facts of the story, inverted pyramid style, with quotes interspersed to "humanize" it, and at the same time make anyone he chooses to single out look despicable.