The news of Nicholas Berg's gruesome murder came urgently in mid-afternoon on Fox News Channel. Anchor Shepard Smith didn't -- couldn't -- show the video that had hit the Internet. He handled it gravely, correctly. He explained the deadly facts, how masked Muslim fanatics screamed praise to Allah as they savagely sawed off Berg's head -- the head of an American who came to Iraq to help it rebuild.
How would this story grab the American news media? How would it change the media's obsession with much less graphic photos of sexual humiliation of prisoners? Many suggested that since the media wanted to make such a show out of the Abu Ghraib pictures, they ought to do the same with the Berg murder. An endless spiral into more and more gory images isn't the best way to run a news business -- or a foreign policy. But it's instructive that after news reports had touted the public's "right to know" about Abu Ghraib, to see every picture, suddenly, some images weren't supposed to stick in the public mind.
But there's more to this double-standard story. While NBC aired 58 stories on U.S. prison abuse in the first few weeks of that story, NBC aired only five stories over 16 months on the discovery of Saddam's mass graves. Abu Ghraib holds 1,500 prisoners, a fraction of whom were abused. Saddam's graves held as many as 300,000 people, all of whom were murdered. How is Abu Ghraib 10 times more important than that?
Sadly, the distortions continued. With few exceptions, the Berg beheading was at best a two-day TV story, an obstacle to get around, a white-noise distraction from The Scandal. Berg died. The media's take: sad, but so what? That shouldn't register in public opinion. On the very night the Berg story emerged, ABC's "Nightline" couldn't spend more than a few minutes on Berg before Ted Koppel was back to soliciting John McCain to explain what horrific treatment Americans might dish out next.
By the second night, even though NBC was showing the Berg photo in the show's introduction (sitting in front of his captors), but the newscast itself was sticking to prison abuse, prison abuse, prison abuse. Dan Rather was touting a new CBS poll showing "public support for the war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level yet" and "the president's overall job approval rating in the latest poll is at a new low, 44 percent."