James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Torture story badly distorted

The torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Abu Ghraib prison is in every news broadcast, every newspaper, so I figured I’d leave it to others to report and make comment.

Now I find I can’t leave it alone, because the performance of American news broadcasters, newspapers, and magazines in dealing with the issue has been abysmal. If there are exceptions to that, perhaps some obscure publications that have told the full truth so far as it is known today, they haven’t got this far.

As one who spent a lifetime in news work, I often am offended by the performance of today’s corporate “media,” but the treatment of this major story goes beyond almost anything we’ve seen yet for cowardice, self-censorship and malfeasance.

The core of that claim lies in the fact that all of the broadcasters, newspapers and high-circulation news magazines are treating the behavior of the abusive U.S. soldiers as an isolated incident. They continue to word their reports in such a way that the average viewer or reader can’t help but assume that the abuse of the prisoners in Baghdad was a short-lived aberration by “a few bad apples.”

The reporters and editors know that is not true.

They also continue to treat the story as though they, and members of the Bush administration, were “shocked, shocked I tell you” by the disclosure of torture and abuse of prisoners. The pose is that the photographs disclosed abuses that were not previously known to them.

The reporters and editors know that is not true.

Over and over, we have been told that the vile Donald Rumsfeld and his boss “acted as soon as the facts were known,” as a Wall Street Journal editor put it. That is a blatant lie, and the reporters and editors know it. They also know that abuse of prisoners by our military and the various secret government agencies is routine under the Bush administration, under Rumsfeld. If they don’t know that, it is hard to imagine how they have come to such a state of willful, unforgivable ignorance.

In fact, if you listen and read very carefully, reporters very occasionally tell you that the Abu Ghraib situation is neither unique nor a surprise. Somewhere in about one of 20 or 30 broadcasts, and somewhere around the 24th paragraph of one of every 20 or 30 newspaper articles, there is some mention of the fact that one or more agencies had previously reported that such abuse is routine.

The disclosures are made in passing, in such a way that indicates the author doesn’t really want you to hear or see what he/she just said and, that, anyway, it isn’t important. But by slipping a fact or two into the occasional story, they are in a position to say “but we did report it,” if somebody demands to know why they failed to tell the whole story.

One of the little-noticed controversies growing from the abuse story revolves around the fact that no one did a damned thing after the Pentagon in February received a report from Major General Antonio Taguba detailing abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

In fact, it has been almost subliminally reported here and there that our nominal president was told about an investigation into that situation over the winter holidays. He apparently wasn’t concerned. Yet it puts the lie to the White House claim that Bush only learned about the Pentagon report after the photographs appeared on television news and that he was “surprised” by the whole thing.

But why rely on the Pentagon? For many months, human rights organizations have been telling anyone who would listen about the abuses of prisoners by our military and spook organizations. From Guantanamo to Afghanistan to Abu Ghraib and several other sites in Iraq and other countries, the beatings and humiliation and torture have become standard procedure, though the organizations are careful not to put it quite that way. They simply report on the abuses, first in one place and then another, and ask that it be stopped.

The reports have come from Amnesty International and other organizations of similar high stature and reliability. There was even at least one from the creaky old Red Cross, which, as almost any American enlisted man or woman will tell you, is far better known for sucking up to the brass than for taking a stand on much of anything.

It is impossible that any reporter covering Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo or the Pentagon would not know of the reports and their contents, and impossible that editors in charge of handling international news would not have known.

The May 9 StarTribune, in Minneapolis, carried an article by Douglas A. Johnson, executive director of the city’s Center for Victims of Torture, an agency that helps torture victims from around this sad world heal psychologically and emotionally as well as physically from the horrors they have suffered. One of several salient points Johnson makes is that while the Bush administration claims that the torture at the Iraq prison is an aberration, perpetrated by a few “rogue individuals,” the nature of what was done fits the long-established pattern of torturers who are seeking to break individuals down in order to obtain information (whether or not there is any to be had) or some other form of “cooperation.”

Johnson argues powerfully that the only way to determine whether the Abu Ghraib situation is an aberration or part of a pattern is through an international investigation. Of course, we know that the Bush crowd never will allow such an investigation.

There is yet another terrible “surprise” awaiting the American public. Although you’ve probably seen nothing on the subject, there is no way in hell the news agencies, the Bush administration and the Pentagon could be ignorant of the facts: American troops also have been widely accused of abuses and murder in Haiti over the past few months, and some of the reports, again, come from agencies that have been shown time and again to be reliable and truthful.

Several factors combine to cause the gutless wonders of American news organizations to duck their duty to tell the truth about torture perpetrated by Americans.

Yes, one is media ownership: All broadcast news organizations and almost all big newspapers are owned by allies of the Bush crowd. They rarely order their reporters and editors to twist or bury the truth, but they don’t have to. Self-censorship has become a way of life for people who want to get ahead in such organizations.

Then, too, if you press real hard, the answer you finally get from the reporter who failed to tell the whole story often is, “I have to work with those people,” which translates to “If I tell what I know, I’ll lose access to the news makers.” There is one true answer to that: If you don’t do the job honestly, your “access” is as useless as you are. Reporters who lack the guts to do their jobs have always used the access excuse. It used to get them reassigned or even fired; now it’s considered a legitimate reason for not doing the job.

(Yes, I was threatened – often -- with lack of “access” and worse if I reported something. I always reported that thing, and I was sometimes, though rarely, cut off by a source – but never permanently. In the end, all sources need the reporters at least as much as the reporters need them.)

Another reason some stories don’t get told accurately and completely, especially stories reflecting badly on this country and/or its leadership, is that today’s journalists are children of the power elite, the offspring of doctors and lawyers and corporate executives. They were not raised to question those in power nor to be skeptical of leadership.

Still another thing going on is that many reporters and editors are cowed by the extreme right. The rightists, the people who claim to speak for God, the supporters of Bush and his crowd, get truly nasty and abusive if they don’t like what they see and hear and, deny it as they will, reporters, editors and producers are seriously intimidated. They want a film of the murder in hand before they’ll report that a crime may have been committed by anyone favored by the Christian right.

And, of course, there is the fact that those nice middle-class people who now make up reporting and editing staffs have the same tendency as the rest of us to believe that the United States is a morally superior entity and that it’s leaders and representatives would never act in the same way as the savages we are so often called upon to set right. That no longer holds for some of us, but it’s still an article of faith with the vast majority. Even to suggest that American agencies routinely use torture – though you hold a vault full of proof – is to make yourself one of the “hate America first” crowd, and none of us want to join that bunch. We are not a people given to facing unpleasant truths about ourselves.

Don’t be conned. Abu Ghraib is not unique, nor was the abuse there perpetrated by a few out-of-control individuals without the knowledge of their superiors. They were doing what was expected of them, and what is being done in any number of other places at the behest of our out-of-control leadership. Facing that truth and doing something about it will make us stronger.