It's time to put up or shut up. Last week I wrote a column saying that CBS should have thought twice before showing the photos from Abu Ghraib prison. The response from readers and even some journalists was like I'd proposed banning the printing press. Numerous e-mailers said I'm no different than a Holocaust-denier who'd ban photos from Auschwitz.
Well, now we have the horrible news that Nick Berg, an American contractor, was beheaded by an al-Qaida affiliated group explicitly in response to the release of the Abu Ghraib photos.
I say in response to the release of the photos - and not the abuse - because that's exactly what I mean.
The Iraqi insurgents had to have known that there were abuses taking place in Abu Ghraib before those images were released. Enough prisoners had been released for The New York Times and CNN to report on the allegations, long before the photos came out. The revelation of those humiliating pictures and the political opportunities they created lead to Berg's beheading.
So now we have an opportunity to see firsthand whether the media is willing to hold to its new standard on gratuitous and sensational images, showing them no matter how offensive and no matter what the consequences.
CNN's Aaron Brown defended the release of the first wave of pictures, in response to my column, saying, "You don't appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it."
Maybe so. But that is a new standard for the media, one which is rarely applied evenly in all cases. If showing snapshots and images reveals the truth better than words, then why do networks refuse to show "so-called" partial-birth abortions? After all, that whole debate is over the nature of the procedure. Going to the videotape would surely settle it better than any news anchor.
The Abu Ghraib images are so shocking, so offensive and so sensational they will in all likelihood make America's job in Iraq and the Middle East immeasurably harder for a long time to come. That means more American deaths - such as Berg's - more Iraqi deaths and a diminished future for that country and that region.
I don't support censorship. The government has almost no role in this. But if CBS showed the same self-restraint it did for, say, the Danny Pearl video, it could still have reported the story shedding light instead of heat.
I originally wrote that CBS should be "ashamed" for airing the photos. I now concede that might be too harsh. But, in conceding that, I'm showing more reflection and self-examination than I've seen from the entire media establishment amid the Abu Ghraib hysteria.
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