First the shock of the Abu Ghraib prison photos, then the aftershock: a surprising debate over whether they should have been published at all. Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online argued that details of the prisoner abuse were about to pour out anyway. He said the inflammatory pictures were unnecessary. In response, Aaron Brown of CNN said: ?You don?t appreciate what happened in that prison until you see it.? So Goldberg wrote a second column: If snapshots and images tell the story better than words, why don?t the networks show us a ?partial-birth? abortion? Surely such pictures would add to our understanding.
Good point. I don?t entirely agree with Goldberg. Although I thought the first wave of photos should have been published, I belong to the ?enough, already? school of thought -- no more Abu Ghraib pictures, please. I get the idea. But if, as Brown argued, graphic detail is essential to understanding stories, why did the media agonize over (and largely suppress) close-up photos of the dismembered bodies of the four American civilians murdered and torched at Fallujah? The tape of Berg being beheaded is in the public domain. Why doesn?t Aaron Brown demand that CNN show it so that we can better understand terrorism? And why did the networks and the print media withhold the grisly 9/11 pictures of bodies hitting the ground at the World Trade Center? Many factors are at work here, including queasiness about pouring violent images into family newspapers and broadcasts. But surely one factor is a semiconscious double standard: The media are more likely to show what is done by Americans than what is done to Americans. Group attitudes about American power and values tend to affect news judgment. No surprise there.
The Iraq war has turned out to be a festival of double standards. Just about everybody who insisted on an apology from President Bush for seven months of pre-9/11 failure to confront terrorism demanded no such apology from Bill Clinton for his perjury and assorted lying and for eight years of doing almost nothing about terrorism. Democrats who are purple with rage that Bush went to war without U.N. approval rarely mention that Clinton did the same thing three times -- in Bosnia, Kosovo, and in Operation Desert Fox (the bombing of Iraq in 1998). And those in the news business who have spent so many months admiring the moral authority of the U.N. have basically looked the other way as evidence accumulates about corruption in the oil-for-food scandal. I first noticed the story in January on ABC?s fine online operation, the Note, which carried some exact figures on the size of individual bribes. But the major media downplayed -- dropped, would be a better word -- the story for many weeks. Even now oil-for-food news is buried way inside most newspapers or simply ignored. One might conclude that the barons of the news business are not very interested in negative stories about the U.N.
Not all double-standard winds blow from the left, of course. Consider the debate over Donald Rumsfeld. Many Republicans who are loudly defending him took an opposite position over Janet Reno, author of the botched raid in Waco, Texas, and thus the leading example of ministerial incompetence under Clinton. Consistency principle: Both Reno and Rumsfeld should have resigned. Reno was responsible for more than 80 deaths, including women and children. By sitting on the Abu Ghraib story for months, Rumsfeld has dealt a crippling blow to the American effort in Iraq. Even if he is not implicated in orders that may have led to the abuse, he surely is guilty of failure on a grand scale. Rumsfeld, like Reno, should have quit. Neither would have lasted two minutes in a British cabinet, or in any properly run private enterprise.
But the left, and particularly the old left, is far more culpable when it comes to blaming America and forgiving our enemies. Consider the American Library Association, which is up in arms over the Patriot Act because it allows the FBI to get library and bookstore records without informing readers or anyone else. But the ALA recently voted to ignore a bigger threat to the freeom of librarians: In Cuba, Fidel Castro has held 10 librarians for more than a year in one of his grim gulags, along with 65 other pro-democracy dissidents. One activist says the librarians are being kept in ?medieval cages.? Apparently romanticizing Castro, like so much of the old left, the ALA overwhelmingly rejected a resolution calling for the librarians to be released. In general, this is the reflexive stance of the literary left. Some 40 organizations, plus many authors, are protesting the Patriot Act and the alleged totalitarian John Ashcroft, while ignoring the library issue in the real-life totalitarian state to our south. Is it too much to expect some consistent principled behavior from the librarians, the press, and the politicians? Apparently so.