Thursday, August 12, 2004

Two Ways to Tell a Story

One event, reported August 7, 2004. One news media outlet, the Associated Press. And two entirely different stories. How does it happen?

First, the U.S. version.

Soldiers' Rescue Attempt in Iraq Rebuffed

PORTLAND, Ore. - Oregon National Guard soldiers attempted to stop Iraqi jailers from abusing dozens of prisoners, but were ordered to return the prisoners to their abusers and leave, according to a published report.

A soldier spotted a man beating a prisoner June 29 in a courtyard near the Iraqi Interior Ministry, The Oregonian, which had a reporter with the Oregon guardsmen of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, reported in Sunday's editions. Members of the unit later saw other prisoners who appeared to have been beaten, and items that could have been used to torture them.

And so forth. There are two kinds of AP stories: the ones generated by AP staffers and the ones sent in by affiliates. This was the second kind. The sole source of information is "The Oregonian." There's no AP byline on it. "The Oregonian" sent in the story, and the AP presumably tightened it a bit, took out some of the purely local references, and shipped it out on the national wire.

It also moved the stories in oversease versions. Here's how it came out in German:

Neue Vorwürfe zum Umgang mit Gefangenen im Irak

Portland/USA (AP) Bezüglich der Behandlung irakischer Gefangener haben US-Soldaten neue Vorwürfe gegen ihre eigenen Vorgesetzten erhoben. Ein am Sonntag veröffentlichter Bericht der amerikanischen Tageszeitung «The Oregon» legt nahe, dass die Misshandlung zahlreicher Häftlinge durch irakische Polizisten von US-Kommandeuren geduldet wurde. Die Zeitung beruft sich auf Soldaten der Nationalgarde von Oregon, die versucht hätten, den misshandelten Irakern zu helfen. Sie hätten jedoch Befehl erhalten, die Häftlinge mit ihren Peinigern allein zu lassen.

[My translation: New allegations on handling of prisoners in Iraq

[Portland/USA (AP) Concerning the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, U.S. soldiers have made new allegations against their own supervisors. On Sunday a published report in the American daily paper "The Oregon" [sic] indicates that the abuse of numerous prisoners by Iraqi policemen was tolerated by U.S. commanders.

[The newspaper's sources are soldiers of the Oregon National Guard, who had tried to help the abused Iraqis. They were instructed, however, to leave the prisoners alone with their tormentors.]

The way the facts are stacked puts the emphasis on U.S. misconduct. The juxtaposition of "U.S. soldiers" and "treatment of Iraqi prisoners" conjures up echoes of Abu Ghraib, even though the circumstances here are utterly different: no abuse by U.S. troops, the Americans -- so far from being involved in torturing prisoners -- went out of their way to protect and aid prisoners being abused.

It seems clear to me that the lede on the U.S. story is a straight news lede, an accurate presentation of the relevant information in the story. The lede to the German version is highly spun; it seems to want to tell a different story than what actually follows.

Soldiers on look-out saw a man beating a prisoner in the Justice Ministry courtyard. The battalion commander [Lt. Col. Daniel Hendrickson, who deserves credit] led a group of soldiers into the compound and separated the Iraqi guards from the prisoners, many of whom had obvious marks of abuse. "The Oregon soldiers freed the prisoners, gave them water and administered first aid." U.S. military police arrived and disarmed the Iraqi policemen.

After Hendrickson radioed for instructions, he was told to return the prisoners to the Iraqi authorities and leave the detention yard.

Neither Hendrickson, a Corvallis police officer, nor others interviewed by 'The Oregonian' would say who gave the order.

The story adds that "The U.S. Embassy in Iraq told The Oregonian that the United States raised questions about the June 29 'brutality' with Iraq's interior minister."

Note the date of the incident: it occurred after sovereignty was transfered to the Iraqi government. The ability of the U.S. troops to intervene in a situation like that was much diminished. Their marching into the Iraqi prison becomes not a matter of military policing, but of sovereignty. But this date isn'y mentioned until far down in either story, and the context is never explained.

Note, too, that the vague "were ordered to return the prisoners" of the back half of the U.S. lede becomes prison abuse that "was tolerated by U.S. commanders" in the German story.

If you trace the story back to the "Oregonian" version, you see that the soldiers interviewed were very explicit about what happened, but silent about who gave them the orders. They give the impression that this is being investigated, and that they are wise enough not to say too much. It stretches the facts beyond their honest limits to say, as the German version does, that the soldiers "made new allegations against their own supervisors."

The Associated Press has bureaus in more than 120 countries that not only funnel news back to America, they "tailor" the AP's news and photo reports "to reflect the specific regional interests" of different nations, according to the AP's Web site. The AP itself translates its news into French, Spanish, German and Dutch (translation into other languages generally is done at the agency level). This story, generated in the United States and then exported to Germany (where the AP supplies approximately 85 per cent of the daily newspaper copy), took on a whole new color.

[Hat tip to the indispensible Medienkritik]