May 17, 2004

Dropping the ball.

While the US press is doing an admirable job of determining just who is ultimately responsible for the torture of Iraqi prisoners (the New Yorker and Washington Post especially, you can argue that it's a case of too little, too late — especially if you're considering those prisoners who suffered at the hands of their US captors.

This magpie can recall seeing a report on possible problems at US-run prison camps back in January or February — possibly this letter to occupation authorities from Human Rights Watch — and that's how we've dated the negligence of the US press (including ourself) unitil now. It turns out that at least one US reporter, Charles Hanley of the AP, was on the story as far back as last fall. Hanley wrote a series of reports on problems at US-run prison camps during October, culminating with a story that described the treatment suffered by six Iraqis while they were being held by the US, including some who had been at Abu Ghraib. The AP wire sent out Hanley's story on November 1 of last year and, basically, it died a death. Only a few regional newspapers ran the story, and there was no follow-up.

Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher recently did an interview with Charles Hanley about his reporting on Iraqi prisoners, and about how his story was 'overlooked' by major US media. We recommend reading the whole story, not just our excerpt.

Q. So what happened after your AP story came out on Nov. 1?

A. I was still in Baghdad, so I was not in touch with how much play it got, but later in November when I came back to New York I found out that the play was very disappointing. A few papers ran it, like the Tulsa (Okla.) World, Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, and The State (of Columbia, S.C.). It got wide use in Germany. None of the major U.S. newspapers published the story. And I was surprised to see that none of them followed up.

Q. Why do you think no one else jumped on it?

A. One reason is simple and practical -- it's a difficult story to get in a chaotic city like Baghdad. Although, in the end, simply realizing that the Red Crescent Society was the Red Cross liaison could have occurred to others.

But the other thing is, there was no official structure to the story. It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an official source. A handout from CPA eventually happened in January but even after that there was not much pursuit.

The story did not pop out at everybody. But there was a lot going on elsewhere. Clearly there is a lot of indiscriminate killing going on in Iraq in general and there's little focus on that. It's not like the only human rights story is behind the walls. But the one behind the walls is toughest to get out.

It's hard to fault my colleagues in Baghdad, considering the pressure and danger there. Many stories are missed -- that's the way it is in war. But clearly there is a mindset in the U.S. media that slows the aggressive pursuit of stories that make the U.S. military look bad.

Q. Why didn't more papers just run your story, when it was handed to them, then?

A. That's something you'd have to ask editors at major newspapers. But I do think there's often disproportionate weight of credibility given to the statements of U.S. officials. There seems to be a tendency at times to discount the statements of others -- people like Iraqi former detainees -- if they're not somehow supported by a U.S. source, or perhaps by photographs.

The greatest fall down in connection with Iraq in the media, of course, was the uncritical and often ignorant swallowing of claims about weapons of mass destruction presented by often unidentified sources.

Q. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said this week the military, not the media, reported the Abu Ghraib abuses.

A. This is strictly correct if you're talking about the specific abuses shown in some of the photos. But the AP provided specifics on other abuses throughout the system many months earlier and at the time was unable to get the U.S. military command to comment on them. Internally there was some oversight going on but certainly no public acknowledgement of the abuses reported by AP.

Posted by Magpie at May 17, 2004 10:32 PM | Iraq | Technorati links |