The criticism of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld boils down to the complaint that he didn’t give the White House and Congress a heads-up about the photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse. He may not have thought the American media would recklessly exploit them to the detriment of America’s image throughout the world. Some of the coverage reflects bias against Bush. The anti-Bush bias that guides so much of the media’s political coverage was highlighted by Mark Halperin in his ABC newsletter, the Note, months ago.
The abuse photos have been presented without context. The interrogations were not conducted for the heck of it. They were conducted to get information and save American lives. And it’s not clear that what is depicted in many of these photos is in fact torture. The media, of course, are clamoring for more of the photos because they have an interest in portraying the American occupation of Iraq in the worst possible light.
An insight into coverage of this controversy comes from an unlikely source. In his book on his scandal-plagued career at the New York Times, Jayson Blair offers an interesting look at the journalism profession. Now sober and free of drugs and alcohol, he looks back not only at the affair that cost his job but how journalists at the Times and other papers cover the news, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He notes that some papers were criticized for showing images of people jumping out of the burning towers of the World Trade Center to their certain deaths on the streets below.
But he adds, “The public had no idea of the even more shocking images being hidden from them. One lesson of September 11, at least for me, was what the news media held back. There was a man impaled on a traffic sign. What appeared to be a pocketbook was a flattened head, the black strands of hair still recognizable. There were images from that day, and ones that followed, so horrific that they were hard to imagine, particularly if one had seen most of September 11 on the safe side of a television.”
What Blair reports is certainly true. Those scenes were witnessed by many others. But he put it on the record, noting how even the New York Times held back. By contrast, there doesn’t seem to be any self-restraint in covering the Iraqi prisoner story. Even without the necessary context, a poll conducted by CNN found that 47% said that torture was justified by the U.S. in some cases. This poll reflected the opinions of those Internet users who chose to participate. But it may also reflect the belief of many Americans that suspected terrorists should be squeezed in an effort to save American lives. As William Safire put it, “name, rank and serial number” aren’t good enough when it comes to terrorists determined to destroy us.
In the face of the pack journalism calling for the scalp of Don Rumsfeld, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger appeared on CNN to offer a dissenting note. He said the U.S. was doing too much hand-wringing over the prisoner story. He said those responsible for 9/11 don’t worry about the Geneva Conventions. Many Americans understand that fact even if many in the media do not.