May 16, 2004
News Judgment Old and News Judgment New: American Nicholas Berg Beheaded.
The argument surfaced last week: the gatekeepers in Big Media are mistaken--clueless, biased, disconnected--for filtering out the full horror of the Berg beheading. They haven't showed the photos or the video of the act itself. But the full horror is available on the Web, and hit meters suggest that some people are ready to see it. But will they see it on television?
[Senator] Inhofe said the photographs of U.S. soldiers mistreating hooded, naked prisoners should be accompanied by photos of mass graves and the executions of prisoners under Saddam— as reported by CNN, May 12.
Call it a test of news judgment. Should the full graphic horror of the Nicholas Berg beheading be shown on national television, and documented by photographs in the newspaper? So far the answer from major gatekeepers is no. But I’m not entirely certain that will hold through the week.
Some think it shouldn’t. Led by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, perhaps the most “watched” weblog in these matters; by Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News, who frequently departs from journalistic orthodoxy; and by others you can read about in this post, the argument has been made: editors and other gatekeepers in Big Media are mistaken—and proving themselves clueless, biased, disconnected or at least inconsistent—by not allowing, through the front page and newscast filter, the true gruesomeness and politicized horror of the Nick Berg killing.
They aren’t showing us everything: the knife, the throat, the screams, the struggle, and the head held up for the camera. But the sickening photos from Abu Grahib keep showing up, and other developments in the ongoing abuse scandal are considered big news. Thus, Reynolds (go here and here) writes: “the big media leaders seem almost desperate to keep the story on Abu Ghraib, even to the point of running already discredited fake porn photos purporting to be from Iraq.” (See Dan Kennedy on that fiasco.)
Fake porn aside, that sort of charge isn’t new. What’s different is the kind of evidence submitted to the court of media opinion. The Net’s reactions—where, as Reynolds puts it, “users set the agenda”—are placed in live comparison to Big Media’s treatment of the Berg video, photos and story. News Judgment New (the Web user’s hunger to know, see, publicize and discuss) is set against News Judgment Old (the gatekeepers and their ideas about news, the public interest, and “taste.”)
Judgment New shows up in the meta-news about popular search terms: On Friday, phrases like “nick berg video” and “nick berg beheading” and “beheading video” topped the Google charts, indicating where the interest was. Video of the actual beheading is, of course, available on the Web, after surfacing first on a site linked to Al Queda. (See this post from Wizbang and this list of sites from Backcountry Conservative.)
The same video was not on network television; and it was not in the 24 hour news cycle on cable. Newspaper front pages have not featured photos of the act itself. “Our letters page today is filled with nothing but Berg-related letters, most of them demanding that the DMN show more photos of the Berg execution,” wrote Dreher at National Review’s weblog, The Corner. (The editorial page of the Dallas paper, where Dreher works, published a photo of one of the killers holding Berg’s severed head, but blacked out the actual head “out of respect for the dead man’s family and the sensitivities of our readers,” as he put it.)
Andrew Sullivan agreed with the letter writers in Dallas: “My gut tells me that the Nick Berg video has had much more psychic impact in this country than the Abu Ghraib horrors.” He also said his traffic was way up, as it was on all political blogs, indicating sudden interest in the consequences of the Queda action: “People who have tuned the war out suddenly tuned the war in. They get it,” said Sullivan on Thursday (May 13). “Will the mainstream media?”
The “getting it” that Sullivan had in mind is an act of judgment about an act of terror: the Berg video, what’s actually shown and said in it, and what it means for Americans are a far more urgent story than further images and details leaking out about prison abuse in Iraq. Normal sensitivity scales for violence and blood do not apply to a political murder and international crime such as this. We should look the Berg beheading full in the face; then we’ll know what we’re facing in the fight against terrorism. That’s the argument.
On Friday (May 14) the search engine Lycos was reporting—as meta-news, if you will—the Web’s more user-driven agenda:
As in previous horrific events — September 11th, the murder of
Daniel Pearl, and the most recent Iraqi prisoner abuse — people turn to the Web for answers…. Today, we discover that the tenor of the searches has changed. When the story broke, searches were Nick Berg, Nick Berg murder, Nick Berg Prisoner of War, and Nick Berg assassination. Just 24 hours later, the searches are now focused on seeking out, finding, and watching the actual video.
Lycos is saying: You can read the trajectory of reader interest in the progression from “nick berg murder” to the video of it, even though news of the video and murder arrived as one story. It’s as if people let the news sink in, paused to register what beheading of an American, video-taped and broadcast… really means, and then said: Okay, now I want to see for myself. Show me, television set. Show me, newspaper. But there was no showing, so they went to the Web.
It’s not a discovery that people absorb the news in stages like this. But it’s different when we can see it happening in real time, and “read” the shifts in demand and interest— because we have Web tools like search engines, links and lists. (And yet those tools have many flaws.) From an alternative source of news, the Web has evolved into an alternative source for news judgment. Here’s Jeff Jarvis, who describes himself as a recovering authoritarian (former Time Inc. editor who got awakened) on: who decides what’s news? His are populist terms:
We can look at what people are talking about on weblogs. We can look at what people are searching for online (see this Google search for “Nick Berg”). We can see what people are linking to on Technorati (this takes you to the latest links on “Nick Berg”). We can look at the traffic on stories about an evil enemy killing one of our innocents versus stories about — to go to Page One of the NY Times today: stories about our “abuse” and even a story blaming us for the murder of our innocent.
“The people have news judgment,” Jarvis wrote (May 14.) “And it beats the judgment of many an editor.”
All this is partly an argument about the wisdom of the war in Iraq (Reynolds, Sullivan, Derher and Jarvis support it) and thus only partly about journalists and their news judgment. That’s not a fatal qualification. Partisans on an issue can know news when they see it, and can perhaps see some things about the issue better. But it is a complication in every argument we try to have about media “bias.”
Meanwhile, Rich Maritt’s Seldom Sober was one of the blogs that found the video and “ran” it—or sections of it—for users to download. Blogger Marotti thus became a news provider for those who demanded the more graphic footage. Not only that; he reflected on what he was doing—and who he was attracting to his site. Here’s some of his open letter about it:
The blogosphere (the community of those who write web logs) broke this story, not Big Media. The blogosphere continues to cover it while Big Media continues to largely ignore it. The blogosphere has the courage and integrity to show this video (or images from it) while Big Media cries “Offensive!” as they continue to show pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners piled on top of one another.
Evan Coyne Maloney, another weblogger, put it concisely: “One day the media was telling us we had to see the pictures from Abu Ghraib so we could understand the horrors of war. But with Berg’s beheading, we’re told we can’t handle the truth.” As far as I know, this is the only justification editors and news executives have given for holding back the actual scenes of Berg’s beheading: too shocking, too disturbing, just too much for most viewers. But Maloney’s view might give some of them pause:
One minute I was fretting about our treatment of Baathists, insurgents, and yes, probably innocents in an Iraqi prison. The next minute I found my head reflexively jerking from the screen as I saw life itself ripped from a living man, a man whose only offense was having the courage to step into a war zone and try to help rebuild a country. There’s nothing like watching a beheading to put things in perspective.
And if you aren’t allowing that beheading to be watched by the big national audience, then aren’t you, in a sense, denying your viewers the very possibility of gaining perspective? More Maloney:
Not that you could find any depictions of the horrific murder in the traditional media. Their airwaves were absent of Berg’s haunting screams. Unless you went digging online, you wouldn’t see the ghastly image of Berg’s severed head being held up like a trophy. The media that had—rightfully, in my opinion—showed us the ugly reality of Abu Ghraib prison refused to do the same with Berg’s murder.
The ugly reality of Abu Ghraib. The ugly reality of Nick Berg’s execution. Maloney’s argument is that we need to see both to have perspective. The editors of the editorial page at the Dallas Morning News took a similar view: (The title of their editorial: “This is the Enemy: Vile image shows world why we fight.”)
Presenting this photograph, which was taken from an al-Qaeda-affiliated Web site, is important because of the power of image to shape public opinion. Shocking photographs have driven the Abu Ghraib prison atrocity story, which has now become a national crisis of confidence in this nation’s civilian and military leadership, and the mission in Iraq. If we show you images of Abu Ghraib abuses, and of soldiers’ coffins at Dover Air Force base because we think you should know the truth about this war, then we should show you this image, too.
It’s hard to argue with that. Except that many did argue over the last week that the press was showing too much from the prison abuse scandal. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) drew headlines when he said Tuesday that he was “more outraged by the outrage” generated over the prison abuses. “I’m also outraged by the press and the politicians and the political agendas that are being served by this.” (Which prompted a reply by Timothy Noah in Slate: “Is the liberal outrage really worse than the torture?”)
It is a fact of life that there are political implications in everything the news media does when handling a big national story— including the images that are shown and not shown to us. Writing in USA Today on May 11, the day the Berg video surfaced, Walter Shapiro speculated: “This atrocity is almost certain to inflame American public sentiment, and presumably will strengthen the position of those calling for an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance in Iraq.”
But if the atrocity—a political murder, committed in the Middle East—might inflame and strengthen, so too might news coverage of that atrocity inflame this and strengthen that, depending on how it is handled. And this is what I mean by political implications in everything the press does. Of course we need to argue about those, and it would be helpful to everyone if journalists learned to take a larger part in such debates.
But part of the reason they don’t, I think, is that discussion so easily slides from the political implications of news judgment to the political motivations that must, according to many critics (including many PressThink readers), lie behind those judgments. Not only are the motivations there, it is said, but they are easily divined.
In a typical statement of this kind, Jonah Goldberg of National Review writes, “When shocking images might stir Americans to favor war, the Serious Journalists show great restraint. When those images have the opposite effect, the Ted Koppels let it fly.” Goldberg concluded: “CBS should be ashamed for running those photos.” (See also Mickey Kaus in Slate, who agrees, and Howard Kurtz, who doesn’t.)
Goldberg was not for suppressing the news of the prison abuse by Iraq. Just the photos from Abu Ghraib. He gave these reasons:
These pictures are so inflammatory, so offensive to Muslim and American sensibilities, whatever news value they have is far, far outweighed by the damage they are doing. “Context” — the supposed holy grail of responsible journalism — is lost in the hysteria and political grandstanding.
He also said that “uproar from these pictures drowns out all other messages, explanations… Lost is the fact that in America torturers get punished, while in the Arab world they get promotions.” I draw your attention to a strange quality of arguments like this, equally in evidence on the Left and the Right; among supporters of the Iraq war who don’t trust the media, and critics of the war who don’t trust the media.
In Jonah Goldberg’s view, there are victims of CBS’s shameful behavior. But the victims are not him and his well-informed readers at National Review, who aren’t about to let proportion and context be lost in this debate. So it must be other people’s reactions he has speculated and worried about. Other Americans, he said, will react to the photos but miss the context and lose all sense of proportion because the news media—their source and guide—fail to provide context, fail to maintain a sense of proportion.
I think it’s strange to go around telling the news media what to show and not show, based on your predictions of how other people—apparently less capable of independent judgment—will react to the news. It’s strange, it’s intellectually hazardous (your predictions can be wrong, and thus your conclusions too) and it risks inflantalizing your fellow citizens.
You shouldn’t do it, because if you keep doing it you will soon be talking about “the masses” and what they will swallow. Soon after that you will be talking about what the masses should be fed. I don’t trust any argument—left, right, middle, fringe—when it assumes that others (the big audience, the mass public, the voters overall) will react with less nuance, intelligence, or critical thought than the writer and the writer’s friends. To me it’s a warning sign: anti-democratic attitude here in evidence.
I don’t think CBS should be ashamed for running the prison photos— at all. That was a classic case of what a free press is for. However, I do think CBS and the producers at 60 Minutes, or Ted Koppel and his producer, Tom Bettag, or some other broadcast forum could announce that—after careful consideration—they’re going to show the beheading, complete with warnings that it may make you sick. On that occasion, they would have to explain themselves, as the Dallas Morning News did, and that would be a good thing. Although I don’t make predictions, I think it’s at least possible it will happen. If so, it will be this week and someone will make the “absorbing the news in stages” argument.
I also think the political implications in what Big Media does are often under-discussed by journalists and critics alike, while the political motivations of the gatekeepers are way over-drawn. (They’re easier to speculate about, they generate more outrage, and they appear to “explain” a lot.) And along with this I believe we should all grow up a little.
Don’t be calling for self-censorship by Big Media today when you may be hoping for less of it tomorrow— because the images have changed, and the implications are now different. Be aware that if you want gatekeepers to let pass more of the news that helps your side, and less that helps “them,” then you aren’t really addressing the gatekeepers at all. In fact, you have surrendered the topic of news judgment to politics and its maneuvers. You’ve politicized it.
Way, way underneath these debates I find a disturbing fact. Even the smartest people in the major news media—and this is especially so in television news—have not really determined for themselves or explained to us exactly what their role should be in the worldwide fight against terrorism. “Cover it responsibly and well” doesn’t begin to provide an answer. For it must have occurred to people high up in the network news divisions that the videotape of the beheading was made not only for Bush but for them, in their professional capacity. That is a fact they have to live with, and think about, whether or not they show us the gruesome act.
We are a long, long way from coming to grips with the fact that political violence worldwide incorporates media coverage worldwide. Terrorism can be many things, but it is always an attempt at communication; and a free press in an open society “completes” the act. So it’s not true that Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American. Al Queda kidnapped and beheaded an American and videotaped it in order to shock and sicken us when we found out. It’s not easy to decide what to do with that if you run a news network. But there is no option not to decide. There may have been a time when news judgment and political judgment could be kept safely apart, but that was an era unlike our own.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
Kevin Aylward of Wizbang, one of the sites with workable links to the video, wrote PressThink with the numbers— about 1.4 million visits to his weblog in the last week. “I’m not sure what this means, but it does mean we are not talking about a small number of people,” he said.
Andrew Sullivan presses the case: “… if we are in a propaganda war, as we are, we need to be as ruthless in publicizing the murders committed by our enemy as we are in exposing the abuses committed by our own.” And he calls for a “campaign” to get the Berg images out.
Let’s start an internet campaign to insist that the major media - including the New Yorker, the networks, the major newsweeklies, and every major paper - run a picture of Zarqawi holding up Nick Berg’s severed head. It’s time to release the Pearl video and stills too. Enough with the double standards. The media were absolutely right to show the abuse photos. But they are only part of the story. It’s about time the media gave us all of it, however harrowing it is.
Don’t miss Liz W. at Life is a Spectator Sport on televising the beheading: (May 18)
No one needs to tell us that it happened. No one needs to plead for the victim, to describe his terror, his screams or the agony of his death. No one needs to tell us the perpetrators were evil and vile—they stand accused by their own actions. Most of all, no one is trying to cover up what occurred. So the reason for airing the video can’t be to make sure we know what the “other guys” did. We already know it in our bones, in our own flesh, in the revulsion and automatic wince we feel when we think about it.
Belmont Club (referencing this piece from ombudsman Michael Getler in the Washington Post) reasons it out: “Getler’s claim is really an assertion of the right to invoke outrage, disgust and hatred at a specific act and its perpetrators, and those who may have been indirectly responsible for it. By taking this logic to its limit, Sullivan claims the same right: to unleash a symmetrical set of set emotions at another group — and demonstrates the absurdity. For it must either be correct to publish both the Abu Ghraib and Berg photos or admit partisanship.”
Jon Friedman of CBS Marketwatch (May 14): “Obviously, the networks didn’t show the decapitating of American citizen Nick Berg because its grotesque nature would appall the U.S. viewing audience. ‘It’s the most horrible thing I’ve seen in 34 years of working here,’ said Marcy McGinnis, CBS News senior vice president for news coverage. ‘It was far too graphic and repulsive,’ McGinnis said.” (Link via Lost Remote.)
Aaron Brown of Newsnight on CNN (May 12): “To show a tape of the beheading is pornographic while not advancing the story at all. But we also get there is a risk that we are sanitizing too much sometimes, that taste can interfere with understanding; and, in that regard, we have no quarrel with what they are doing in Dallas tonight even as we will not show it.” (Transcript of Brown’s interview with Dallas Morning News editorial page editor Keven Willey.)
Cable Newser comments on this post: “If I was MSNBC, and I wanted to demonstrate the power of cable news… …well, you can fill in the rest.”
Editor of the Albany Times Union asks about the Berg video: “Is it time to adjust our standards of newsworthiness to reach a Web-savvy audience?” His answer: NO. Rex Smith, Web won’t lower our standards.
Heart of Canada warns: “Once you see a film like that, it can affect you for the rest of your life. If you surf around the web, you’ll read people’s accounts of how they became physically ill, tormented, haunted, horrified, traumatized, and more by watching the murder.”
Wizbang, Big Media Has Failed You….
Jeff Jarvis comments on this post: News judgment is political judgment.
David Adesnik at OxBlog writes:
If the leading newspapers and television networks responded exclusively to audience demands, domestic news would quickly displace almost all foreign coverage. And in time, entertainment, weather and sports would displace news about domestic politics.
Again speaking historically, American journalists are most willing to exercise their judgment when American behavior contradicts American principles. That is exactly what happened at Abu Ghraib. I do not doubt for a second that such abuses would receive just as much attention if there were a Democrat in the White House.
Newspaper editor Tom Mangan in comments here:
Every day we wonder, “how low must we sink to sate an audience?” … and reality TV, commercial interests and the Internet table pounders keep saying they want us to sink lower — then turn around and attack us for sensationalism when we do.
The errors of fact we report are bad enough. The intrusions into the lives of suffering, grieving people are bad enough. The bias and score-settling are bad enough. The demand for profit margins at the expense of reporting the news are bad enough. At some point, though, there has to be a limit on how badly we degrade our basic humanity in the name of earning a living and reporting the news.
Call me a liberal, a coward, a traitor, I don’t care. I draw the line at decapitation.
Doc Searls comments on this post: “First, take it from an old PR guy: the Berg beheading was not an act of war; it was an act of publicity. Second, stop and think of what that publicity was meant to do, and what it has the power to do regardless of its intentions. Hal Crowther puts it best: The best way to give a lie the force of truth is to soak it in innocent blood.”
Journalist Dan Gillmor observes: “This is already a blood-soaked culture, where Hollywood routinely sells movies full of realistic, made-up gore. Maybe we’ve created a climate where the only thrill that can top movie violence is a genuine snuff film, like the one those foul criminals in Iraq sent out to the world. How many of those searches were done by people who, rather than wanting more truth, more information, were just hunting for the sick thrill of watching death for real?”
Chicago Sun Times columnist Mark Steyn: “We always come back to that strong horse/weak horse thing. But the point to remember is that Osama bin Laden talked about who was seen as the strong horse: It’s a perception issue. America may be, technically, the strong horse but, thanks to its press and its political class, the administration is showing dangerous signs of climbing into the rear end of the weak-horse burlesque suit.”
Tim Rutten, media columnist, Los Angeles Times: “There is no more insidious moral trap than the notion that immoral means can obtain a moral end. We have been told repeatedly since Sept. 11 that, if we fail to defeat Al Qaeda, a new dark age may descend. The photos from Abu Ghraib suggest it already has.” (May 15)
My NYU colleague Susie Linfield in the May 2001 Boston Review (“Capture the moment: On the Uses and Misuses of photojournalism.”)
Photojournalism shows us that human beings do things we would like to think are not human. It stretches our definition of humanity, though often in ways that grievously wound us. Can we look at the world and still love it? This is the question that photojournalism poses. Can we stare at what James Agee called “the cruel radiance of what is” without shielding our eyes? Can we drop the alibi of ignorance—the endless insistence that we did not know—and resist the seductive lures of solipsism, of denial, of dissociation? Can we acknowledge the reality of the world we have made, without forgetting that a different one is possible—and necessary?
At this particular point, questions, not answers, may be photojournalism’s greatest gift.
Belmont Club: News Coverage as a Weapon: “Yet the extension of warfare into the area of media coverage is fraught with great danger, in no small part because it subtly alters the definition of where the battlefield lies and who an enemy combatant is. One of the enduring strengths of Western democracy and of the US Constitution in particular is the delineation between legitimate dissent and enemy activity, a boundary which enables a democracy to continue functioning, albeit in an impaired state, even in wartime. But the changing balance between the political and military aspects of war means that this line will begin to blur as military activities cross over into the political. Already, the Pentagon is beginning to offer direct news from Iraq. It has also reorganized its command structure in Iraq to explicitly recognize the role of political warfare.” (May 17)
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 16, 2004 2:11 AM
A few thoughts:
Consider two broad conceptions for what would make a press more democratic. One would be to make the press more receptive to what people want.
The structure of broadcasting companies invites an interpretation of their implicit philosophy as the editorial staff makes decisions and viewers are free to switch channels if they don’t approve. Such an attitude might be consistent with democracy if the technology and access were democratised. But given that denizen access is limited, good production expensive, etc., we ought to have some mechanism for mollifying the anti-democratic nature of the current big presses.
Would more press democracy mean a system whereby news decisions are made in part by the audience instead of by a more remote editorial judgment? A system whereby a viewer could influence more directly what he or she could see and hear? Given the numbers game and broadcast structure, any recommendation for what should be broadcast, really is a recommendation for what other people should see. Hence a lever for attempts at ideological influence. Hence, a magnet for PR specialists building Astroturf campaigns, as well as good old-fashioned public opinion.
Would market sampling help to be more democratic, the way radio stations microtune pop music playlists to match listener interest? The lesson radio broadcasters have taken to heart is to have variety kept in strict control. More diversity of music means fewer listeners. Would the lesson be more ideological specialization for more democracy?
The other (better) conception that comes to my mind is to serve the same kind of role that history departments at universities serve, to support a social memory. Since the press in some ways does give us the (clichéd) first writing of history, some care could be taken to elevate the standard of the living history lesson that the press provides.
One principle that would arise, I think, is that if you are trying to present a history of some war, academic honesty requires that you proportion your detailed stories or anecdotes in rough proportion to your evidence of their representativeness. If your evidence says X invaded Y’s land, enslaving, marauding, etc. far out of proportion to any harm done by Y to X, you don’t spend equal time detailing X’s crimes and Y’s crimes, much less focus prominently on the details of Y’s crimes, even when, as history often has it, the victorious X has well-preserved and self-serving documentation and Y has its stories cast along with its bodies into the pit. Allowances, to be sure, can be made to show diversity in the historical record or instructive exceptions.
Such an well-established moral principle could come to bear on press decisions to show graphic violence fits, even after we take into consideration that editors don’t have the hindsight and research time of historians and almost always have their own ideological pre-commitment for or against the righteousness of X’s cause.
Could senior editors not think along the following lines? We have a taped beheading here. What does our current best evidence indicate, given all we know about the history of the US in wars, the history of Iraqis in wars, about wars generally, given all that our journalists on the ground are telling us, etc. about how common such acts are in the political circumstances? How much discussion and showing of the video would reinforce an overall picture that is accurate to the evidence we have? The usual things an editor should be thinking about. In the end, a lot of the decision hangs on how many general background facts are weighed in making the decision.
For example, even the most cursory investigation of history will tell you that the press in country X that was invading country Y, have predominantly, one might say overwhelmingly, either supported such invasions or on rare occasion opposed such invasions on tactical grounds mainly, e.g. that the invasion is righteous but unlikely to succeed. You just don’t find historical examples of the _major_ press institutions of country X saying, “This invasion is immoral even if it succeeds.” In fact, they usually don't call it an invasion. It's liberation, a humanitarian mission.
So, if you know this history, as an editor from the invading country speaking to the denizens of the invading country, do you weigh that into your decision, knowing that the vast majority of military aggression, i.e. terrorism, has been committed with the moral support of the invader’s press? Should you weigh evidence of your own likelihood to be able to view the situation as objectively as future historians? Sound, reasonable procedure that should be demanded of any historian, or would that be “politicizing”?
Humans have a hard time seeing the most obvious facts when shielded by the asymmetry of their own perspective. But a thoughtful person can at least try. How about a simple thought experiment for editors? Write down a summary of what you think are the relevant circumstances as well as they are known. Take every reference to the US and to Iraq and switch them. Then ask, "What should an Iraqi broadcaster do with a videotape of an Iraqi civilian executed in such a way?"
This observation caught my eye enough to go back and read it again: "As far as I know, this is the only justification editors and news executives have for holding back the actual scenes of Berg's beheading: too shocking, too disturbing, just too much for most people."
And, it seems to me, this is true. I have avoided the video because I have chosen to do so. But, because I look at a lot of sites, I stumbled on one that had the still of Berg's head being held up. I wish I hadn't seen it, but I have and it is the kind of image that is, indeed, "news" in all the ways an image can be news. It shows me something that I had never seen before (and hope to never see again), and it discloses to me acts that tell me no matter how much I think I can imagine something I really cannot.
Now that I have seen it, it does put the Prison pictures in perspective. You see, even though the Prison pictures are "news" they are not, like the photos above, new. Instead, they map to similar images that the culture has been presenting to us for years. While the S&M props, the piles of naked men, the jail cells, and all the rest of the "information" seen in the photos may have been "news" in that the actions they showed were coming out of a prison in Iraq and featured American soldiers, it all had a bit of the previously seen on HBO, at the movies, in the magazines, or on a porn website near you.
Even people who don't seek these kinds of images out have had them flow by in their peripheral cultural vision. In a very real sense, while we haven't seen these images before, we've seen them all before -- they just had better production values. In a sense, they are so common in the background of our culture that a lot of people just don't see them anymore -- this is, as I understand it , one of the "explanations" offer by the Boston Globe for how it came to print a picture that contained a doggy-style insertion shot: 'We just didn't see it.' S&M pictures and jokes and catchphrases and references have been commonplaces in our culture for sometime now.
The beheading shot, on the other hand, is something not at all commonly seen in either the news or in the culture. I've no doubt that dramatic and fictional beheadings have been used in the movies whenever there is either a dramatic point to be made or a horror film moment to be had, but the level of saturation is far, far lower than S&M/Prison images. Add to that the grainy and gritty nature of the image itself and the knowledge that what you are seeing is not a fiction, and you come into a whole new universe of what is seen; you will see visual news that is new. And while the reaction of the vast, vast majority of Americans that see this video will not be hard to predict, the actual level of that reaction is still unknown.
It is, for those of us who use this medium, always difficult to remember that we are still in a small minority. For all the searches and for all the downloads that have made such a sidestory this week, it still adds up to just a sliver of the population as a whole. If this video is rolled out on network television, any internal media arguments about the showing of it will be utterly beside the point. I can tell you from personal experience with just one still that while you think you are ready for it, you are not.
That, however, is not an argument for not running it. And what has to cross the mind of someone making that decision is not only the "news value" but the political implications. For as the prison pictures stimulate, as we have been told numerous times, a reaction of "shock and disgust," so the pictures from the beheading also stimulate a reaction. My personal reaction, based on seeing only one still, was that it hardened my hate for the people that did it and the culture they came from.
Of course, that's just my opinion. I could be wrong.
I completely agree with the decisions made to not show the full video. My primary reason is out of respect to Nick Berg himself. Just as I'm horrified by the mere existence of sites like the (active last I knew) rotten.com, and the video series Faces of Death, I consider it in equally bad taste to put before an audience someone's death.
As the above comment pointed out, the search engine part of the equation only accounts for a fraction of the population, certainly. I don't think taking that as a cue that showing the video would be the "democratic" thing based on that. Based on the responses I've seen to both rotten.com and Faces of Death (both of which, like the Nick Berg video, I have intentionally avoided viewing) many, if not most, of those searchers thought it "cool" or what have you. I don't like the idea of spreading that, as I say, out of respect for Berg himself--and his family.
It's also interesting to me the extent to which it's been discussed how far to take showing the video, but who is looking into the fact that
Berg loaned his laptop to the supposed 20th hijacker months before 9/11? Perhaps he was involved with that group, and in the end they found him expendable. Perhaps he was somehow blackmailed into that association. Perhaps he was just being nice to a fellow bus traveller. Perhaps--I don't know, anything.
Incidentally, I suppose one could say that my bringing up such a thing is also cruel to do to Nick Berg, but I don't agree. Showing a person's death seems to me to be a violation against a person's very humanity. No matter who it is, no matter what they've done or been involved in, I cannot see that as ever being justifiable.
I also find this hand-wringing over what to do to be silly, ironically, considering that I'm aware that, before I was born, tv news showed combat footage during the Vietnam War. I know people who grew up with that on air before them. I don't entirely approve of that either, but I do think it more responsible, because within the footage itself there is context of a life and death struggle.
Jay, thanks. Good summary of issues.
Here are my take aways:
1. Hypocrisy (motivations).
a. The media cannot argue the importance of showing the horrors of war to justify some coverage, then argue the depravity of covering another act deemed too horrific. The wounded child in an Iraqi hospital from a US bomb or an insurgent's IED versus the contractors' burned bodies, hung from the bridge in Fallujah, versus the Abu Ghraib photos versus the beheading of Nick Berg. Either show it or don't show it.
b. There is war propaganda, anti-war propaganda, US propaganda, Iraqi propaganda, AQ propaganda, Shia propaganda, Sunni propaganda, Kurdish propaganda, Euro-weasel (I know) propaganda, .... Partisans cry if their propaganda isn't getting more attention than a ideological/political/social competitor's.
2. What is and isn't news from a watchdog's POV (motivations). This wasn't covered as well as I had hoped.
a. There is more "news" in we're the bad guys stories than in terrorists are bad guys stories.
b. There is a significant reward system in place, and likelihood of having an impact, in being a watchdog over your democratic "good guy" government. Writing watchdog stories about "bad guys" like terrorists or autocrats is seldom rewarded, seldom results in a change in their behavior, and often results in you or someone you feel an obligation to becoming a target.
3. Context, perspective and volume. (Implications over time).
a. How many stories, how much innuendo and anonymous sourcing, how many days in a row, .... We're seeing the same Abu Ghraib pictures every day now. There are 1,000 more out there. There are several minutes of Nick Berg's beheading with a half-dozen relevant screencaptures that are not being shown with a potential lifecycle of a week.
b. Historical context, trends and future directions. Probably the most difficult. My spidey-bias-sense was tingling reading Douglas Kutach's post on the historical lessons to apply. Should we look to the US invasions of North Africa and Europe in WWII for our lessons? The Pacific islands and Japan? Korea? Vietnam? I've seen such "reporting", both trying to justify our fight alongside the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and AQ in Afghanistan, as well as our fight in Iraq that has pitted coalition troops and Iraqis against other Iraqis, Arabists and jihadists. I've also seen comparisons to the past and current European ventures in the region. Periodicals, magazines, CSM, etc., do more of this than you might see on your half hour TV news broadcast.
I agree that what is missing is the media's discussion with their consumers of their role in the war. As a consumer, I think there are apologists, critics, muckrakers/watchdogs, sensationalists and sometimes a compilation of the above.
Jay, great note of the silence about the press role. I saw the disgusting, hate-creating, fear-inducing, spine-steeling video of the beheading. I knew of, but did not see, the Daniel Pearl video.
The CBS/ media anti-Bush bias becomes inevitable when they censor themselves and NOT show the Nick Berg beheading. The killers claim it was BECAUSE of Abu -- despite the abuse being last years "news", with a general already being fired in Jan., and the military investigating. (And prolly doing a poor job, looking to scapegoat a low rank soldier, who had taken pictures, without a full examination of the whole MP - MI interrogation stuff.)
The media IS an active participant in the War on Terror, it is NOT a third person narrator of a novel. Whose side are they on? If they are on the side of truth-- they must show the video.
If they are neutral between Bush and Bush-haters, they must show the video, AFTER showing the Abu abuse.
Roger Simon has a rumor that videos of torture of Saddam are available.
Is the US at war? Who are we fighting? What is the "true" perspective?
The snuff film video IS disgusting. BUT, those hooded men will run Iraq if Bush runs away -- JUST like Pol Pot murdered 2 million after Kerry's anti-V. War group was successful in the US running away from SE Asia.
The Bush-hate noise, like with Abu, is so loud that neither constructive criticism can be heard, nor is there perspective on other atrocities.
Where are pictures of the April 17 murder of 3 Americans by the UN (in Kosovo)?
First: The photos of beheaded corpses hanging from a bridge in Falluja were representations of atrocities committed against Americans, and yet my recollection is that criticism surrounding the publication of those photos included claims that such imagery would weaken Americans' resolve for the war, which would be unpatriotic. If that argument was true for Falluja, why are we to presume that showing Nicholas Berg's beheading would strenghten Americans' resolve, which would make withholding the images an anti-war act?
Second: One thing that seems to be getting lost in this tit-for-tat debate (you showed Abu Ghraib photos; now you're obliged to show Nicholas Berg's beheading) is the relative news value of each.
It's not news to me, or I suspect to most others, that Islamist terrorists are ruthless fanatics who want all of us (Americans, Westerners, what have you) dead. I don't need to see a videotaped beheading to get that. Sept. 11 was pretty convincing.
But, you know what? It was news to me that American soldiers, either on their own or as a matter of policy, were systematically abusing, humilitating and doing God knows what else to the people we went over to liberate -- many of whom had not been accused of any wrongdoing.
To suggest that the Abu Ghraib revelations can be mitigated by showing graphic evidence that however awful some Americans have been to some Iraqis, some Iraqis or other Middle Easterners have been even worse to some Americans, is specious at best. Abu Ghraib is shocking and appalling because we as a nation desperately want, and believed that we held, the moral high ground in Iraq. The erosion of that moral high ground is the news, not the relative repulsiveness of each side's actions.
In terms of editors' decisions to show or not show any of these images, it's a safe bet that the overwhelming majority of newsrooms want to show as much of everything as they can without alienating readers and viewers by going overboard. There has been a general squeamishness about publishing any unpleasant images from Afghanistan or Iraq, but that seems to have changed over the past few weeks, dating back to Falluja.
There is a tremendous danger in withholding all images of pain, cruelty or death that are inevitable in war, because, as John McCain said recently, free people are obligated to understand the costs and consequences of armed conflict. But editors always have to decide what is too graphic and too gruesome to publish in a general circulation newspaper or broadcast. From what I've read of the Berg beheading, the starkest images seem inappropriate for publication.
It strikes me as odd that anyone who may object to running photos of flag-draped coffins as an invasion of privacy or overly manipulative could call for an unedited showcasing of a decapitation staged as a terrorist's public relations stunt.
Hello, everyone, and thank you for these well-considered comments.
Tom Mangan: I agree that the Berg video should not--and as a practical matter, could not--be shown in 24-hour cable rotation.
To Catrina and several others: I agree that "there's viewer demand" is not a good enough reason to show anything. If that were so, the Paris Hilton video would have been in the CNN rotation, etc.
Stephen (sbw): That's a very good point about push vs. pull media. One could argue--and I guess you are--that "the system" worked the way it should. Those who make a conscious decision to seek it out can find the Berg video, while those just watching or picking up the paper will not be surprised by it. However, this does not address the claims of those who think Americans should see what happened to Nick Berg, whether they "want" to or not. There are times when journalists make decisions like that (the prison photos may be such a case), so one can reasonably ask: why not in this case?
And if I may add something else, Stephen. Phrases like this, "Some of the pontifications opined so far..." make you sound like a jerk-- pontificating about who's a pontificator. Since I am quite sure this is a misimpression, and that you're actually not a jerk, you might adjust your writing style to more accurately reflect who you are and what you have to say. That's just advice; you are free to say (almost) anything you want here, and strike any pose.
Douglas: that the principle of proportionality in news coverage is sometimes in conflict with the principle of balance--and that proportionality might be the better guide--is a great point, and exactly what I meant when I said that many in the news media have not really thought through their role in the fight against terrorism. It won't be easy, but as you rightly said: "a thoughtful person can at least try."
Terry Heaton: I am just not sure that "the Berg videotape was a very dumb tactical move by the enemy, especially with the PR nightmare of Abu Ghraib giving them a moral high ground victory, of sorts." What makes you think they want what we regard as the "moral high ground." It's not clear to me that this is so.
Gerald writes: "I can tell you from personal experience with just one still that while you think you are ready for it, you are not." I had that experience too. But in the world we're in, maybe what we're "ready" for cannot be the horizon of our informational experience. Maybe it still can, but maybe it now cannot.
Tim: It is true that when it comes to the deeds of Al Queda, "watchdog" journalism is irrelevant, because corrective action is irrelevant; whereas with illegal and abusive practices by U.S. actors, the watchdog press is necessary. Thus, you won't see the same level of coverage across cases.
This is one of the many reasons why "what's good for the goose is good for the gander"-style arguments are not sound as their makers think. The ease of pointing out an inconsistency in journalistic treatment, a "double standard" (and then deducing from that a craven, manipulative, or hostile intent in the press) sometimes causes us to overlook very significant and at times profound differences between cases.
David E: You captured concisely and precisely what bothered me about some of the more reflexive responses on the right-- and there were a lot of those.
Please keep the conversation going. Cheers.
Let's address the news value aspect of this hypocrisy.
Is the press informing us that we're the bad guys because that's news, and the bad guys are really the good guys since no news is good news?
Is the press repeating its failure prior to 9/11?
What news value was there prior to 9/11 that Islamic terrorists are ruthless fanatics after the Khobar Tower, African Embassies and USS Cole bombings? Did you feel well-informed when the second airplane hit the WTC?
Are we being kept well-informed about how Islamic militancy has morphed over the past 2 1/2 years since 9/11 in response to our efforts? Do we understand how leadership losses and replacements have impacted these loose organizations? Has Zarqawi become a new leader in the Isalmic militancy, with Berg's beheading a political demonstration of his new status? Do we understand why Zarqawi felt the videotape was important from his POV if it has no, or less, news value from our POV? Is Jay Rosen correct to admonish those that question the value of Zarqawi's act in terms of our politics, our moral high ground? Would a sense of Islamic watchdog journalism in the American media help us to understand our enemy, his culture, the war, and the Iraqi people we are helping to rebuild a socio-economic and political nation? Or is all that dwarfed by our myopically American POV news value?
Do we have a better understanding how states in the Middle East, Europe and Asia have modified (for better or worse) their relationships to the old and newly morphed Islamic militancy?
How much of the well publicized opinion polls translate into actually fighting against us or the terrorists? How much of those polls are influenced by showing or not showing pictures and video? Could the same pictures and video have different effects among different audiences and cultures? Can I argue that coffins, prison abuse, Fallujah lynchings and beheadings should all be shown and discussed with the same emotional pull, or at least proportional to the "news value"? Perhaps with at least the same modicum of justification as showing Princess Di's death photos?
The bottomline is the hypocrisy, the role of watchdog, and more critically the role as conduit for critical information.
I have heard no good arguement for why a screenshot of Berg pulled prostrate on his side and held down with a knife to his throat could not have been shown. Nor have I heard why everyone but the Dallas Morning News (to my knowledge) did even show a blurred or blocked out photo of his beheading? Why not even a clip that fades with his dying screams?
No news value? Perhaps we don't really understand the news value of Berg's beheading because we have already preconceived (and wrong) metrics for evaluating news?
> Phrases like this, "Some of the pontifications opined so far..." make you sound like a jerk-- pontificating about who's a pontificator. Since I am quite sure this is a misimpression, and that you're actually not a jerk, you might adjust your writing style to more accurately reflect who you are and what you have to say.
Fair enough. You can't hope to exchange ideas with people if you violate the sympatheic contract and they feel rebuked.
Thanks for the constructive advice. I'll try to do better next time.
Let me ask, is there a responsibility to point out when comments overreach and, if so, does it fall to those commenting to mention it or to the blogger?
Blogs represent all that is good about people... and all that is otherwise.
One hazard of laissez faire blog moderation is that what I call the "Law of Coinciding Blunders" has more opportunity to prevail in the undampened, interactive feedback system of the blogosphere. Under this law, trivial mistakes are made every day by all of us. Occasionally they happen in such order and timing that the collective result is a major calamity. Previously we have depended on the slowness of communication to act like moderating rods in a reactor.
Another hazard is that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, you don't have to know anything to have one. Where is Emily Post to help us develop the blogging grace to detect and protect ourselves from wind? If we don't, too many readers will decide that reading through the chaff for the wheat simply isn't worth the effort.
As one who teaches journalism and the quality that ought to be associated with it, you have more opportunity than most bloggers. In other words, in your classes you likely cover philosophy, content and style. Should you cover philosophy, content and style in your blog? Or just philosophy, alone?
In our race towards civilzation, language equates to thought and slipshod isn't smart. [Hint: Please buy a copy of Sister Miriam Joseph's "The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric" and Richard Mitchell's "Less Than Words Can Say".]
You probably have more blog readers than people you have blog commenting. What might cause your blog readers sufficient discomfort to lead them to make the observation about overreaching in the first place?
Apparently the Berg video caught the attention of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I got a call from Mr. Kloer for the article based on a heated letter I wrote. Not sure if letters alone or other factors played into the decision by the paper to report on this.
I think it's worth capturing here some of the reported reactions from those who saw the video and how this non-multi-media push press organization decided to cover it:
Beheading video in big demand
Grisly images fly across Web
Phil Kloer - Staff
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
"I can't get that picture out of my head," says Hall, 23, an accounting clerk who lives in Acworth. "I see them pulling back his head and they're cutting his neck like it's a piece of steak and oh, my gosh."
"I knew it was going to be about the beheading, but I didn't realize it was going to play out all the way through. She just kept saying, 'Oh my goodness,' and then she stopped, and she broke down. All I could say was, 'Lord have mercy.' ''
"If there's a positive in this, it's that we still can be shocked and we still can be pushed too far,'' says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. ''We're not totally desensitized."
Dr. Robert Butterworth, a Los Angeles psychologist, says, "People . . . don't realize the damage these images can cause. There really should be a warning label.
"I've talked to journalists who've seen all kind of horrible things in the war zone, and they say they can't get the Berg images out of their heads."
"I'd have to say I'd never before gotten physically ill from watching anything, but I actually got a little bit queasy watching it," said Grim, manager of a DeKalb County charter airplane company.
But Grim nevertheless thinks the video is "something everyone should see. That's terrorism if there ever was any."
Poll: South is sticking by Bush
Iraq setbacks notwithstanding, optimism rules; war on terror gets even higher score.
By DREW JUBERA
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/19/04
'A higher standard'
Many Southerners believe the prisoner abuse scandal, as well as other perceived setbacks in Iraq, are overblown because of Democratic politicking. Asked which parties, if any, have attempted to use the abuse of prisoners to their political advantage, 41 percent named the Democrats. Only 7 percent accused the Republicans, while 22 percent said both parties were equally guilty.
"It's nothing but the Democratic Party taking advantage of a situation in an election year," said Dinah Bane, 45, a bail bondsman from Gainesville in Hall County. "I'm tired of watching the news because of all this crap. The media is so far left that it doesn't get reported accurately."
Others worried the prisoner abuse would overshadow the beheading of Nicholas Berg.
"I am concerned that the American people are bothered more by the small abuses we've done [to Iraqis], compared to what [the Iraqis] have done to us," said Mary Barrett, 60, a furniture company supervisor in Tupelo, Miss.
But most Southerners say any torture is unacceptable.
"They shouldn't, we shouldn't. Both ways," said Myra Marin, 31, an Arlington, Va., mail handler.
But 40 percent of Southerners think the prisoner abuses were a major setback in the war in Iraq, and 76 percent say the United States has higher moral principles for going to war than most other countries.
"It's like a policeman or a preacher. You hold people to a higher standard when you step into that role," said Vickie West, 50, an adoption social worker in Greenville, S.C. "It's like saying you're a Christian and then drinking and stealing."
First... I'm not going to hide my opinions or claim to be objective. I am a conservative Vietnam War veteran and I believe that we are in a major war, with Iraq being one battle in that war. This essay will get around to the beheading photo and Abu Ghraib eventually. First, I want to comment on media bias, with two examples that should be examined, one of which could be a good story for some enterprising reporter.
Many of us long ago concluded that the main stream news media has a political bias along with other reasons for its editorial judgments (ratings, good taste, winning awards, scoops, etc).
However, the real danger is not that reporters/editors/etc are biased. There is no way for human beings to not be, and Journalism School is not a magic vaccine against bias nor a magic implantation of the ability for objectivity.
The biggest danger is the consistency of the bias across almost all opinion forming organs of our society, and especially the primary television news networks. Another danger is that reporters and editors present themselves as objective (and even worse, probably even believe it)..
Unlike many countries, in the United States we do not have freedom to choose different sources of news (with a few exceptions), we have the freedom to choose which personality delivers the same “news.” This is especially true for the large percentage of the population that is not interested enough to dig for news, and which gets all of its national and international news from the big-3 evening network broadcasts.
The conformity is itself is a serious indictment of the main stream media – regardless of what direction the bias lies.
Arnaud de Borchgrave’s criticism of the media [ http://www.tinyvital.com/BlogArchives/000786.html ] after Tet ’68 should be read by everyone interested in journalism, and should be course material in every J-school program.
The media is not an objective observer standing on the sidelines. The media is a participant, a weapon wielded by those who seek to influence it and, sadly, by some members of the media itself. No individual in the media is incapable of being objective, because they are human. Group-think and other sociological factors cause the lack of objectivity to lean consistently in the same direction for any particular story.
As a Vietnam Veteran, I’ve have a special interest in John Kerry, and have thus been using various reputable raw sources (such as his web site and CSPAN archives) in addition to the news media. I have watched how stories examining Kerry’s behavior after Vietnam have glossed over, minimized or “explained” (excused) the actions that should attract the most serious attention, and how journalists have readily accepted, and printed without comment in many cases, the Kerry “spin”.
One example is the coverage of the charges that he was unqualified, made by his entire command chain. That was news. Real news. At least as important as how many drills Bush attended in Arkansas. How many people from Bush’s military past have shown up to criticize him? For an entire command chain to come to the same conclusion, and to feel strongly enough to subject themselves to the inevitable personal attacks that result from bringing those charges, is unprecedented as far as I know. Certainly this and that retired officer make comments about political figures (although more commonly they discuss policies). But an entire command chain from 34 years ago?
The commander’s made a charge against a presidential candidate that goes straight to his character, and attacks the very basis of his campaign (“I’m a Vietnam War hero, vote for me”). My survey of the various stories that resulted showed that they were short, and the only information other than a tiny part of what Kerry’s former commanders said was Kerry spin.
No further investigation by reporters was needed, apparently, once a link to a dead Republican was found. Someone found of a photo of Kerry’s replacement (O’Neil) with Nixon and the historical fact that Nixon had chosen O’Neil to debate Kerry. Hence the charge “Nixon shill” and the implied conclusion O’Neil is to be ignored. Apparently Nixon can reach out from his grave to twist O’Neil’s mind, by this reasoning. The fact that O’Neil actually believed what he said (as is obvious from the video of the Dick Cavette debate) is automatically precluded by his having been chosen by a notorious figure of the past. Also a public relations firm that works with Republicans was involved in the event, and this also consumed a chunk of the story. The conclusion we are left to draw from the way these two facts was reported was that these people were partisans not to be believed. Ignore the charge. Likewise, the tiny story about this event conveys a message that is is not important. In some stories, more words were used describing these two minor associations than the contents of the press conference.
We are seeing guilt by association used to destroy a legitimate story. Isn’t guilt by association supposed to be McCarthyism? Certainly that’s the word that comes from the left if this tactic is used.
I challenge the journalists and other readers here to find that story and check my accusation.
Then I challenge you to change the name Kerry to Bush, and the unit to the Texas Air National Guard and say, with a straight face, that this is a minor story.
The bias is obscenely obvious.
Here’s another example and then I’ll get to the Berg issue – they are related.
John Kerry’s campaign engaged in a cover-up recently. Normally cover-up is to the press as catnip is to a cat. Not this time. Here is the raw information – see if you think this should be news (and ask yourself to imagine a similar situation with Bush). As far as I know (and I don’t have access to Nexus), this has never been reported at all in the major media.
The First Phase of Cover-up
Kerry’s biography on his website used to say:
Kerry volunteered for the United States Navy after college and served from 1966 through 1970 rising to the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. Afterwards, Kerry continued his military service in the United States Naval Reserves from 1972 through 1978. Kerry served two tours of duty in Vietnam
Michael Kranish of the Bost Globe, 6/17/2003 reported [bold emphasis added]:
John Kerry flew Walinsky [an anti-war activist] around New York to deliver speeches against the war. Kerry did not wear his uniform and did not speak at the events, but the experience helped convince him that he wanted to become a public leader of the antiwar movement. On Jan. 3, 1970, Kerry requested that his superior, Rear Admiral Walter F. Schlech, Jr., grant him an early discharge so that he could run for Congress on an antiwar platform.
"I just said to the admiral: `I've got to get out. I've got to go do what I came back here to do, which is, end this thing,'" Kerry recalled, referring to the war. The request was approved, and Kerry was honorably discharged, which he said shaved six months from his commitment.”
The website biography, with its gap in dates from 1970-1972 is clearly meant to imply that Kerry was not a Naval Officer during his anti-war activities. Michael Kranish reports that Kerry received an honorable discharge from the service in 1970, which would make Kerry a civilian after that.
If Kerry was a sworn officer in the United States Navy during 1970-1972, his anti-war activities take on a different significance – especially since during that time he visited with the Vietnamese Communist delegations in Paris during that period (according to his own testimony), and he gave his famous 1971 testimony in that interval. That testimony, among other things, accused the U.S. military of “day-to-day” war crimes, not isolated incidents, with the “full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
The Second Phase of the Cover-up
When Kerry was forced to publish most of his service records (except for the medical reports of his first 2 purple hearts), it showed that Kerry was actually in the regular Naval Reserve (inactive status) during the gap.
But the gap disappeared from his biography! In fact, there are now no service dates shown on his campaign web site’s biography [http://www.johnkerry.com/about/ ]. Ironically, a press release was sent out that day, apparently with the old boiler-plate biography at the end.
Has any reporter asked Kerry why he changed his biography when contradictory facts came out? Has the Boston Globe published a correction (it might have, I have no way to know) after I made Michael Kranish aware of this discrepancy? Is there anybody who can explain why this information, and especially the cover-up, is not news? Here is the answer to one typical excuse:
It was 30 years ago – Answer, so was his heroism that we hear about all the time, and so was George Bush’s service in the Air Guard, which came under extraordinary scrutiny, with many very strong allegations (deserter, “easy way out”, “daddy’s influence”, AWOL) and the desperate attempt on the part of the press to find any kind of “gotcha.” Most importantly, the cover-up was not 30 years ago, it was a month ago.
On to the beheading photos:
Unlike some conservatives, I don’t believe that the failure to show the beheadings was intentionally political. I believe it was the media trying to follow the “good taste” commandment in the Code of Ethics.
However, does anyone believe that the Abu Ghraib photographs are in good taste? For that matter, does anyone truly believe that showing those images over and over and over again is anything other than aiding and abetting the standard Washington scandal machine? Is there anyone who believes that those photos will not aid Al Qaeda in recruiting, especially in the United States and where they seek malcontents or “useful idiots” who are not visibly Middle Eastern?
There is not a question in any conservative’s mind that the constant repetition of the photos from an isolated event in which a small number of soldiers took place, in which a major investigation was almost complete (you don’t assign a Major General if you don’t take the charges very seriously), is an example of the media attempting to hurt George Bush’s campaign. They could get the same ratings showing many other things – especially war footage.
Finally, one other comment…
It is a fact that an international, radical Islamic movement has declared war against the West. They are going to commit many violent acts, have no qualms about killing civilians in large numbers, and are willing to lose their lives in the process. Most of the rest of the world sees the true violence of this war, the casualties and violence and tragedies caused by our troops and sometimes by the enemy.
Our public does not see this. They are protected in the name of good taste.
War is not in good taste, and neither are its consequences. By “protecting” our people from these images, we are also failing to show the realities of what they may soon be seeing in our streets, and of what we and our enemies are doing in Iraq.
Not showing the jumpers from the World Trade Center was an similar failure to inform. Television is a powerful medium, because it affects emotions. In some sense, having that medium and then avoiding pictures of the reality of this war and the reality of what is intended for all of our citizens is failing our people – they are being emotionally misinformed.
The excuse of protecting the victim is hardly sufficient to fail to inform the American people. Do you really think those killed on 9-11 would want the tragedy of their deaths minimize by not showing the end result? Compare this to Abu Ghraib – the faces of the accused were not blurred. The effect of that is to prejudice the prosecution – to make it harder to convict these people because of a poisoned jury (in military terms, “command influence”).
Some would say that people would suffer psychological damage from these pictures. There are ways to show the news to minimize that. The true sickos will get the pictures anyway, because of the internet. But John Q. Public is presented a selected, sterilized picture of violence, while he sees the grossly sexual sadism and homoerotic photos of the Abu Ghraib scandal over and over again.
The media would seem to believe that blurring the faces and genitals causes those images and their repetition to be in good taste, and that showing them day and night and over and over against is justified.
But violence? No, that is reserved for the fictional part of the business. Frequent fictional violence shown every night shortly after the “good taste” news – just look at the Law and Order franchise (which I am a fan of). But real violence, that conveys the reality of war, is off limits?
Who is kidding whom?
At least the big three entertainment networks are being highly inconsistent in the application of the “good taste” standard.
If they show the violence, they will be criticized. Do they have the courage to weather this criticism? After all, new media supposedly holds special privileges and responsibilities in our society. They should deal with it.
Our people who may be themselves be slaughtered deserve to see how violent the real world is – especially the world of those who seek to kill us. They need to understand, emotionally, the danger they are in. The Israeli’s came to that understanding when they recently released raw footage of the immediate aftermath of a gruesome bus bombing. Did that show up on the news here?
Many of our people are wondering why the media would show the Abu Ghraib pictures over and over again, but not the violence of Nick Berg’s beheading.
We have seen photos as shocking as Berg's beheading.
There was a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running after being burned by napalm. There was a photo of a South Vietnam general shooting a kneeling Viet Cong captive in the head.
I guess two things bothered me about the contrasting treatment in the media of the Abu Ghraib story and the Nick Berg story. First, the prison abuses were reported and due process begun back in January, but nobody reported much about it until the photos were leaked. And the immediate import of the story was not that American soldiers were responsible, but that Don Rumsfeld was responsible, and the media went to work trying to prove that connection. Many of the people calling for Rumsfeld's resignation are the same ones constantly claiming that there was no connection between Saddam and 9/11, but I didn't see a similar determination in the media to find one.
Second, it seemed to me during Vietnam and again now, that the press doesn't object to showing lurid photos when they show Americans or our allies caught in a shocking act, but when the atrocities are by "wogs" they are too strong for us.
This is why there is such a sense of bias. It isn't the reluctance to show a beheading on the evening news, but the alacrity for showing the Abu Ghraib photos over and over and over.
Another part of this that bothers me is the attitude that comes with this "news judgment" that the press behaves as it does because the Constitution requires it. Talk about infantilizing one's audience!
View from a Height quoted this exchange from an online chat on the WaPo website between a reader and Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the paper:
Arlington, Va.: "Looks like trial by media to me. I don't intend to make light of what happened in Iraq, but don't you think that The Post is just feeding a lynch mob? It would be better to wait for a court to establish what happened, and go from there."
Leonard Downie Jr.: "It is our First Amendment responsibility to inform the public as fully as possible regardless of what happens in courts or, in this case, inside the military justice system. To cite just one example, that is what we did with Watergate."
This, along with most discussions of journalistic ethics, strikes me and a lot of others as a pretentious and condescending way of avoiding the issue: "Oh, you wouldn't understand." So if we don't have a J-school degree, we're not qualified to complain. Forgive me, but this sounds a lot like the reason the Catholic church opposed the translation of the Bible into the lanquages of the people.
I didn't watch the Berg video. That one fuzzy shot of Zarqawi holding up a severed head was enough, and it was an order of magnitude more disturbing than the Abu Ghraib photos, which were sickening. I guess both could be blamed on the dehumanizing effect of war, but then why weren't any of those prisoners, who were presumably suspected or guilty of crimes of some kind while Nick Berg wasn't, beheaded?
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Reader's Advocate Mike King advises us that, "The frustration that gives rise to the moral equivalency argument about Berg's murder and the abuse at Abu Ghraib seems rooted less in media coverage than in a growing sense among Americans that the conflict in Iraq is far from over and could indeed become worse."
In other words, don't blame the messenger.
Am I frustrated with the conflict in Iraq? You bet. Does that invalidate my frustration with a media that has lost it's moral perspective in its coverage of this war? No.
In Mike King's world, Nick Berg's beheading was "yet another example of terrorism aimed at Americans in that part of the world."
Which part of the world would that be, Mike? Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Indonesia? Africa? Europe? Washington, D.C.? New York City? In nightclubs, on airplanes, passenger ships and workplaces around the world?
Mr. King goes on to admit, "I'm frankly at a loss to explain what level of partisanship or ideology can create a calculus where coverage of an act of barbarism leads to any good political outcome."
I'm frankly at a loss to explain what level of media judgment can create a calculus that expresses incessant moral outrage over not being allowed to show flag draped coffins, and then shrugs it's shoulders in relative indifference at acts of barbarism like the beheading of Nick Berg.
Of course, the media expressed similar indifference to barbaric acts of terrorism prior to 9/11. Back then, the hunt for the terrorists was also allowed to be conducted away from the public eye, by military and intelligence agents. If and when any were caught, it occasionally generated some coverage. Instead the news was dominated with muckraking stories of American misconduct, like whether Gary Condit had an affair with a murdered intern.
"How would more details of Berg's murder balance the scales of coverage?"
Perhaps it would demonstrate that the media learned something from 9/11. That the people who beheaded Nick Berg in Iraq represent a grave threat to their readers here. That our Ombudsmen will not allow us to be caught unprepared and uninformed again because the media were obsessed with muckraker's tunnel-vision.
But I supposed we should accept their explanations that blame us for our frustration with their initial unbalanced coverage. At least until the next 9/11.