CBS shouldn't have aired inflammatory footage

Posted: May 07, 2004 12:00 AM

Because it is required to repeat the obvious as if it were catechism during feeding-frenzy moments like this, let me say again: The abuse of Iraqi prisoners depicted in those now world-famous photos is an outrageous scandal and the perpetrators must be punished.

OK, now can I say something else?

CBS should be ashamed for running those photos.

Since the journalistic priesthood insists that context is everything, let's get some context. The investigation into these abuses was long and well-underway before CBS' "60 Minutes II" broke the story. In fact, it was the U.S. military that really broke the story by putting out a press release.

In January, the U.S. Central Command announced, "An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility." Other investigations were well-underway by the time CBS ran its story.

Also, journalist Seymour Hersh was preparing an article for the New Yorker on the abuses. "60 Minutes II" knew this because they'd tried to hire him as a consultant.

This is all very relevant, to me at least, because the case for broadcasting those photos to the world would be much, much stronger if the good reasons to do it weren't vastly outweighed by the bad.

The good reasons are obvious. The people have the right to know. The scandal firestorm sharpens the resolve of politicians and the military to investigate and stop the abuse of prisoners. The bad is that uproar from these pictures drowns out all other messages, explanations and journalistic "context."

 Lost is the fact that in America torturers get punished, while in the Arab world they get promotions. Huge percentages of Arabs are illiterate, which means these pictures will tell the whole story, particularly in the hands of the vilely anti-American Arab media. This will harden hearts against us and almost certainly result in lost American and Iraqi lives.

Now before you get all pious with table-thumping sermons about the glories of the First Amendment and the need to publish news without fear and all that, consider a few facts.

In 1994, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were horribly mutilated alive (castrated, their Achilles tendons slashed, etc.) in Rwanda. The full extent of the barbarity wasn't disclosed for a long time for fear of reprisals.

Just a month ago, television news networks agonized about how much they should show of the butchery of Americans in Fallujah. They opted for very, very little.

Within 48 hours of the 9/11 attacks, the major news networks and leading newspapers were settling on a policy to stop showing images of victims leaping to their death from the World Trade Center. NBC ran one clip of a man plunging to his death, and then admitted it was a mistake. An NBC News V.P. told The New York Times, "Once it was on, we decided not to use it again. It's stunning photography, I understand that, but we felt the image was disturbing."

In fact, post-9/11 coverage illuminates an interesting cultural cleavage in the media. When shocking images might stir Americans to favor war, the Serious Journalists show great restraint. When those images have the opposite effect, the Ted Koppels let it fly.

In 2002, - the leftwing Web magazine - ran a finger-wagging story full of condescending quotes and observations about how America was too obsessed with 9/11. The author, Michelle Goldberg (no relation), wrote that the appetite for documentaries about the attacks "suggests a voyeuristic impulse cloaked in patriotic piety."

Maybe what stoked America's appetite wasn't pious voyeurism but the decision of the networks to withhold the footage in the first place?

Regardless, now Salon magazine asks another question. The lead story by Eric Boehlert on May 6 asks: "The media are finally showing the war in its full horror. What took them so long?"

That's a fair, if slightly creepy, question. But it underscores my point: The media decide which images are too disturbing, too sensational, too dangerous all of the time. Ms. Goldberg, for example, spoke for the establishment media when she declared that the Danny Pearl murder-video was "too sickening to broadcast even once."

So the question is, What was gained by releasing these images now? CBS could have reported the story without the pictures. They could have still beaten their competition to the punch.

But these pictures are so inflammatory, so offensive to Muslim and American sensibilities, whatever news value they have is far, far outweighed by the damage they are doing. "Context" - the supposed holy grail of responsible journalism - is lost in the hysteria and political grandstanding.

Of course, CBS had every right to do what it did. But that's irrelevant. Nobody's suggesting the government should have stopped them. I'm suggesting that CBS should have stopped itself. Now we'll all have to live with the consequences - and some of us will die from them.