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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.

Highly recommended.

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