Posted by: sean | September 15, 2006

Torture coverage

The Columbia Journalism Review has an excellent piece by Eric Umansky that takes an in-depth look at the media’s torture coverage and Congress’s overall lack of interest in examining the issue:

Reporters and news organizations deserve enormous credit for exposing the abuse and torture of detainees during the U.S. war on terror, more than other institutions or individuals. Without [The New York Times‘] Carlotta Gall, The New Yorker‘s Seymour Hersh, The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest, and many other reporters, we might well never have learned of the abuse and torture that have occurred in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.

But just as sweeping attacks against “the media” are too reductive, so too are plaudits. And when the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored — a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

What is true and what is significant are two different matters. Everybody agrees that journalists are supposed to ascertain the truth. As for deciding what is significant, reporters and editors make that judgment, too, all the time — what story leads on the front page, or gets played inside, what story gets followed up. And when it comes to very sensitive material, like torture, many journalists would prefer to rely on others to be the first to decide that something is significant. To do otherwise would mean sticking your neck out.

When stories about abuse did finally get attention, what was new was often less the revelations themselves than how they were presented and the prominence they were given. Simply put, a scandal wasn?t a scandal or a scoop a scoop until it was played as one. But after the September 11 attacks, most news organizations were reluctant to go there. “Being fair is one thing; being excessively worried that we might not be portraying the military in a fair light is another,” says Roger Cohen [of The New York Times. “For a while there, we lost that balance.”

Newsroom ambivalence is not the only impediment to covering this difficult story, of course. For one thing, with the exception of Senator John McCain’s 2005 antitorture amendment — the coverage of which turned out to have been shallow and excessively focused on personalities — Congress has shown a studied lack of interest in torture. There have been no sustained congressional hearings, and a proposed independent investigation has long been blocked by the congressional leadership.

Complicating matters has been the Bush administration’s savvy defense. It has pushed back against calls for an independent, overarching investigation of abuses. Instead, there have been a dizzying number of fractured, limited-authority reports, all of which reporters have diligently sought to cover. But many of the reports are classified and ultimately heavily redacted, and none of them have looked specifically at the connection between policymakers and abuse. Indeed, the stonewalling has been part of a larger, smarter strategy: rather than defending its policies of abuse, the administration has denied the policies exist.

The whole piece is worth a read, and if you’re like me, you’ll notice that some of the big stories like rendition and CIA black sites were actually broken much earlier than you remember — sometimes years earlier.

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