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Self-Censorship and Torture Abu Ghraib, CBS and American Power

Abu Ghraib, CBS and American Power

by DAVID PETERSON

Right before the close of last Wednesday’s 60 Minutes II segment about the torture and abuse of Iraqis at the hands of the American military personnel in control of the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, the program’s host Dan Rather added a "postscript" ("Court Martial in Iraq; US Army soldiers face court martials for actions at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib Prison," 60 Minutes II, CBS TV, April 28, 2004):

RATHER: A postscript. Two weeks ago, we received an appeal from the Defense Department, and eventually from the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, to delay this broadcast given the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq. We decided to honor that request while pressing for the Defense Department to add its perspective to the incidents at Abu Ghraib Prison. This week, with the photos beginning to circulate elsewhere and with other journalists about to publish their versions of the story, the Defense Department agreed to cooperate in our report.

Today, Tuesday, May 4, marks the sixth day since this program and these words first aired on CBS TV. And yet this appalling confession on the part of CBS TV’s news department—that, based on a request from the American state to delay the broadcast of its Abu Ghraib report, CBS agreed, and only changed course when Seymour Hersh’s article on the same for the New Yorker was set to be published (i.e., "Torture at Abu Ghraib," May 10)—has received next-to-zero coverage in the U.S. media, let alone expressions of the monumental outrage that it deserves.(Note that Hersh’s report was first posted to the New Yorker’s website on April 30—that is, two days after the 60 Minutes II report first aired.)

Thus, on the nearly-unstomachable Sunday morning TV program The Week with George Stephanopoulos (ABC TV, May 2), the following exercise in journalistic minimalism went out over the airwaves:

GEORGE WILL: (Off Camera) When CBS was prepared to air these pictures, you asked them to delay and they did delay, and you asked them on the grounds that this was a particularly tense and volatile moment in Iraq. When did you expect that moment of high tension to end?

GENERAL RICHARD MYERS: Well, I think as we work our way through Fallujah and Najaf, as we find solutions to those problems, that tensions would go down, as we get Iraqis involved in those operations. That’s when we thought, you know, the tensions might be, but, you know, you can’t keep this out of the news, clearly, but I thought it was, would be particularly inflammatory at that time.

This, as far as I’ve been able to determine through the present moment, constitutes the one and only instance since April 28 that a MAJOR American television or radio program has mentioned CBS TV’s willing complicity with the American state to suppress the evidence it possessed of torture and abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison, and, in particular, to air those self-evidently damning images. (Should anyone be aware of additional instances, please show me that I’m mistaken.)

The same day, Sunday, May 2, Gen. Myers appeared on CBS TV’s Face The Nation–no questions were asked. And the General appeared on the Fox News cable channel’s Fox News Sunday–but no questions were asked.

In point of fact, all that I’ve been able to find in the way of reporting on CBS TV’s disgraceful collaboration with the American state are (1) DavidBauder, "CBS News says it held off on prisoner abuse story for two weeks," Associated Press, May 3; (2) the same AP wire service report picked up by the Washington Post and published this morning ("CBS Delayed Abuse Report At the Request Of Gen. Myers," May 4); and (3) John Cook, "CBS Delayed Airing Story on Iraq Prisoner Abuse at General’s Request," Chicago Tribune, May 4. (See below for the AP and Chicago Tribune reports.)

But that’s it.

So, I guess the questions of the moment—at least three of them—ought to be: What does CBS TV’s collaboration with the American state tell us about the journalistic values at CBS TV? Second, what does the rest of the American news media’s lack of interest in this act of collaboration tell us about the journalistic values of the American news media? Third, do you suppose we should be shocked by any of this?

FYA ("For your archive"): Am depositing here the two reports that I’ve discovered-to-date on the collaboration between CBS TV and the American state to delay broadcast of the eventual 60 Minutes II report on Abu Ghraib prison.

The Associated Press

May 3, 2004, Monday, BC cycle

HEADLINE:CBS News says it held off on prisoner abuse story for two weeks BYLINE: By DAVID BAUDER, AP Television Writer DATELINE:NEW YORK

CBS News delayed reporting for two weeks about U.S. soldiers’ alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, following a personal request from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Gen. Richard B. Myers called CBS anchor Dan Rather eight days before the report was to air, asking for extra time, said Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes II."

Myers cited the safety of American hostages and tension surrounding the Iraqi city of Fallujah,Fager said, adding that he held off as long as he believed possible given it was a competitive story.

With The New Yorker magazine preparing to run a detailed report on the alleged abuses, CBS finally broadcast its report last Wednesday, including images taken last year allegedly showing Iraqis stripped naked, hooded and being tormented by U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Fager said he felt "terrible" being asked to delay the broadcast.

"News is a delicate thing," he said. "It’s hard to just make those kinds of decisions. It’s not natural for us; the natural thing is to put it on the air. But the circumstances were quite unusual and I think you have to consider that."

Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said there should be an "exceptional principle and argument" to justify withholding news of such magnitude.

"You’d have to be convinced that these other American lives are truly on the line," he said. "I would want to have a very specific and short time period (to withhold the news). If CBSbelieves it was justified, to hold back two weeks seems like an awful long time. Perhaps a day or two. But two weeks is a long time, particularly with the nature of the allegations in the video."

Rather revealed the two-week delay in a postscript to viewers at the end of Wednesday’s broadcast.

Fager said he believed the story was better because of the delay; CBS was able to interview Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt about the alleged incidents because the network waited.

Myers, speaking on ABC’s "This Week" on Sunday, confirmed that he asked CBS for the delay.

"You can’t keep this out of the news, clearly," Myers said. "But I thought it would be particularly inflammatory at the time."

Fager knew that CBS had to consider safety issues in deciding when to run the story. "We can’t just be acting in a void," he said. "There’s a war going on and Americans are at risk, especially the ones that are being held hostage. It concerns us."

Although one American hostage recently escaped and others may have been killed, at least one hostage is still believed held in Iraq.

Steele pointed out that Iraqi prisoners could have been at risk, too.

"Allegations of this nature, the violation of the rights of the enemy prisoners, should not be taken lightly in the slightest," he said. "It’s possible that their lives could be in jeopardy as well. … it’s not impossible to consider that at least their health, if not their lives, were at risk."

Chicago Tribune

May 4, 2004, Tuesday

HEADLINE:CBS Delayed Airing Story on Iraq Prisoner Abuse at General’s Request BYLINE: By John Cook

CBS News was prepared as early as mid-April to report details of abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American troops, but held off on the broadcast for two weeks at the request of Gen. Richard B. Myers,chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The delay, which was disclosed by correspondent Dan Rather at the end of Wednesday’s broadcast on "60 Minutes II," raised questions about whether CBS News was cooperating with the government in managing the timing of a highly embarrassing story.

It is not uncommon for news organizations to withhold sensitive information for reasons of national security. In this instance, Rather said CBS News delayed its report because of "the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq."

Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes II," said Myers warned that the story, including photographs of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners, could incite Iraqi groups to injure American hostages.

"The first thing they brought up was the hostage situation," Fager said. "I took it pretty seriously. I can just imagine one of those pictures showing up around a soldier’s neck."

CBS News informed the Pentagon last week that the story would air Wednesday because the New Yorker magazine was going to publish a similar story, and Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt eventually agreed to sit for a satellite interview with Rather.

"Bad P.R. for the Pentagon is probably not a good reason to delay a story," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Even if it could inflame the situation and put soldiers at risk, that’s not very compelling — it’s hard to prove the effect" a broadcast will have. Nonetheless, Rosenstiel said, if holding the story secured the cooperation of the Pentagon, it probably meant a more balanced story for the viewers.