Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Reality check: We've had almost a week of wall-to-wall coverage of the Iraqi prisoner abuse (not torture) scandal. It was inevitable that something would come along eventually and replace it. It's unfortunate that it had to be something like this.
A video posted Tuesday on an Islamic militant Web site showed the beheading of an American civilian in Iraq, and said the execution was carried out by an Al Qaeda affiliated group to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
The video showed five men wearing headscarves and black ski masks, standing over a bound man in an orange jumpsuit — similar to a prisoner's uniform — who identified himself as Nick Berg (search), a U.S. contractor whose body was found on a highway overpass in Baghdad on Saturday.
"My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael, my mother's name is Susan," the man said on the video. "I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah. I live in ... Philadelphia."
After reading a statement, the men were seen pulling the man to his side and putting a large knife to his neck. A scream sounded as the men cut his head off, shouting "Allahu Akbar!" — "God is great." They then held the head out before the camera.
That's the religion of peace for you.
What's even more interesting is how the media is playing the story. It's big on CNN and Fox News, taking up the top story slot on both sites. On the New York Times' main page, it is a small headline tucked beneath larger ones dealing with Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.
Fox News' Shepard Smith showed the first few seconds of the video, where the victim, Nick Berg, identifies himself. The tape stops. Then Smith describes, cut by cut, how Berg is decapitated.
This horrible murder will not be shown on a single American telecast. Not Fox News, not CNN. Not any of the major networks. No newspaper will print a screen capture of the murder or of the terrorists holding up Berg's head for the camera afterwards.
The editors of The New Yorker, The Washington Post and producers of "60 Minutes II" all justified their publication of the images of naked prisoners in piles and being menaced by dogs by claiming that words could not properly communicate the magnitude of the abuse. The pictures were necessary to give Americans the necessary understanding of what was going on in that prison.
David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, which has published two stories about the prisoner abuse written by Seymour M. Hersh, defended the use of the images.
"In this instance, I don't think you want to go out of your way to protect the tender sensibilities of the reader," Mr. Remnick said. "You don't aim to be gratuitous, but to weaken the power of these images in a story where the photographs are at the center of things would be an editing mistake in my judgment."
Such arguments would seem to dictate this disgusting beheading video being shown at least once, even if it's at 11:30 at night on Ted Koppel's "Nightline." Newspapers should post screen captures on their Web sites behind two pages of warnings.
But none of that is going to happen.
Well, yes to some extent.
The pictures of abuse in Abu Ghraib are disturbing, but not so disturbing or outrageous that television waits until late at night to show them or newspapers refuse to print them.
Images from this beheading are far, far worse. But they should be shown too -- if the media is concerned about its credibility and consistency.
Jonah Goldberg of National Review spoke about this subject yesterday on "Newsnight with Aaron Brown." Goldberg was attempting to make the point that showing the photos of prisoner abuse was unnecessary.
BROWN: But let's talk about whether or not if we know something -- in this case, clearly we did -- we know pictures will be damaging to the effort in some respect, will be damaging to the national interest in some respect -- and I think we can fairly argue these are -- should we then withhold them and -- that's easy -- here it gets harder -- if we do, where do we stop?
GOLDBERG: Well, first of all, I'm not advocating anything remotely like a new standard. This is a standard that photo editors and producers have struggled with for decades, when to show pictures and when not to show pictures. I'm not talking about censorship either.
I do think that, you know, one standard that you could have is, does it actually report news? And there is very little evidence that this was reporting actual news. This story was out. "The New York Times," CNN had reported on this already. Another standard would be, would releasing the pictures stop abuse that is actually going on at the moment? And, again, there is no evidence that I have seen that that is the case. This in many respects was purely sensational. And on Friday night, I know that you mentioned that, you know, that pictures increase our understanding of things. And I think that's often the case. But we don't use that as a standard to show pictures all the time. For example, one of the most raging national debates now is partial-birth abortion. I've never seen a partial-birth abortion live on television before, and for a pretty good reason.
We stopped seeing the pictures from 9/11 of Americans jumping off of the World Trade Centers. Within 48 hours, the major news networks in this country decided to stop showing it because they decided it was too disturbing. I saw so much context after 9/11 from Peter Jennings, especially, when Palestinians were celebrating in the streets after the 9/11 attack, and Peter Jennings went out of his way to call these isolated incidents, don't make a big deal out of it.
We got nothing like that from the media. We got full feeding frenzy with these pictures. And I think that the point is if -- there is real damage. And I'm just sort of shocked that I'm the only person who thinks this is a legitimate point to debate right now.
Goldberg's arguments, which were so outlandish to the media elites less than 24 hours ago, are now going to be the exact same ones used to justify quashing the tape of Berg's murder.
Brown's question: "Where do we stop?" was answered today. "We," the media, stop when it's an American being beheaded.
On a related note: According to Fox News, at 12:15 p.m. PDT, Al-Jazeera still had made no mention of the story.