Accuracy in Media

Dick Durbin’s outrageous comments on the floor of the Senate about prisoner treatment at the detention camp in Guantanamo exposed the longstanding double standard at work in the mainstream media, and the power of the New Media, especially the bloggers who insisted that Durbin apologize. It also demonstrates how irrational some have become because they so despise President Bush. On June 14 the Democratic Senate Whip from Illinois stood on the floor of the Senate and read an account from an unidentified FBI agent of a prisoner’s treatment at Guantanamo. The report referred to the prisoner being chained to the floor in the fetal position, not being given food or water, and exposed to extreme temperatures. Oh yes, and “extremely loud rap music was being played in the room.”

Then Durbin said, “If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime?Pol Pot or others?that had no concern for human beings.” Thus, by any standard, Durbin was comparing the treatment of this one prisoner to the way that he perceived that Nazis, and Soviet and Khmer Rouge communists treated their prisoners. Perhaps Durbin was unaware that 20 to 30 million died in the Soviet Gulag, that the Nazis killed six million Jews alone in their death camps, and that the Khmer Rouge killed more than two million in their killing fields. 

Initially, Durbin stayed on the offensive. His first clarification was to say it wasn’t the troops or the military he was attacking, but the Bush administration. Al Jazeera quoted his spokesman as saying that Durbin had no plans to apologize, under a headline for all the Arab world to see, “U.S. Senator Stands by Nazi Remark.” The article said that Durbin called on the Bush administration to apologize “for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and authorizing torture techniques that put our troops at risk and make Americans less secure.”

Though Durbin’s comments became big news in the blogosphere, on Fox News and in some conservative websites and publications, the absurdity of the comparison was apparently not obvious to many. For example, CBS never reported on it until a week later when Durbin finally issued a semi-apology, following a tongue-lashing from fellow Illinois Democrat, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Daley pointed out that no one had been killed or badly injured at Guantanamo, called Durbin’s comments a “disgrace” and urged him to apologize. ABC and NBC had given it only slight coverage. Durbin had initially blamed his predicament on those who didn’t understand his “historical analogy.” But after Daley’s comments, Durbin offered a somewhat more substantive apology, though a close analysis of it reveals that it really just apologizes to people who thought his statements went over the line. The obvious implication is that he didn’t think they went over the line. He actually seemed to be blaming his critics and standing by his analogy by saying “that historical parallels can be misused and misunderstood.”

A week later Durbin gave an interview to Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Still defiant, Durbin initially refused to acknowledge that his comments had gone over the line. He was still trying to make it clear that he wasn’t attacking our soldiers, but rather the administration for abandoning the Geneva Conventions and using torture techniques. But Wolf, to his credit, persisted. Durbin then said, “Well, now I understand it. At the time, I thought it was just an historical analogy to others that had used torture. But it brought up so many negative images, I clearly went too far. It was a poor choice of words.”

Many conservatives see the double standard in the comparison to the overwhelming coverage of the comments of Karl Rove and Trent Lott. Back in 2002, at a party in honor of Senator Strom Thurmond’s retirement, Lott suggested we could have avoided a lot of problems if Thurmond had been elected president back in 1948 when he ran as a Dixiecrat, on a platform of states rights and continued segregation. This was an outrageous comment, but it was made in a jovial atmosphere where people were laying it on thick about Thurmond and his career. Thurmond had renounced his former segregationist views, and had done a lot for blacks in his state. And it later turned out that he had conceived a child with a black woman, and had supported their daughter financially for nearly 60 years before it was made public. Lott tried getting out of it by saying that it was at a tribute to Thurmond, and was by no means meant to suggest that he, Lott, supported segregation. But the damage was done. The media did not accept his excuses or explanations.

And more recently were Karl Rove’s comments about liberals versus conservatives in reaction to 9/11, which were largely taken out of context. A reading of his remarks shows that Rove explicitly referred to those on the far left who associated themselves with Michael Moore and MoveOn.org. The latter urged moderation rather than military action against the terrorists who hit us on 9/11. Despite the solid and specific nature of his charges, Rove came under attack by Democrats and the media, with some insisting that he should apologize or resign.

Durbin’s comment was in a class by itself because it revealed such an absurd understanding of history and the current situation with the detainees.  He tried to get out of it by referring to the Holocaust, and how unique it was in history. That’s fine, but it doesn’t go far enough. How about those victims of communism, the collectivization god that failed and murdered a hundred million or more in its evil path?

And to Durbin’s main point, what about those detainees and their treatment? No prisoner has died at Guantanamo. Out of some 68,000 who have been detained worldwide, 325 have made a formal claim of some type of abuse, and about a hundred in the military have been found guilty and punished. There have been some 30 cases that are being classified or investigated as homicides. But abuse of the prisoners is not the system; it is what happens when our system fails. In most of those cases, the abusers are brought to justice.

Several commissions, including the one overseen by James Schlesinger, former Defense secretary, have determined that, for example, at Abu Ghraib, it really was the work of some lower-level people where the supervision and training failed. And it happened over a short period of time, and was being investigated and prosecuted before the media ever got excited about it. Former attorney general William Barr pointed out during testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee last month, that in World War II, the U.S. held 400,000 Axis power detainees on U.S. soil. None received the benefit of lawyers or trials, as many are calling for now, at least for the 530 being held in Guantanamo. War is hell, for all involved, but until there is a better way to defeat tyrants and terrorists, it will remain with us.

By failing to hold Durbin accountable for his malicious and false statement, the major media demonstrated their sympathy with his invidious comparisons.




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