Media ethics, consistency questionable in release of photos

Posted: May 12, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Instead, the major news networks tripped over themselves to celebrate their courage for broadcasting the images. The Washington Post received its own set of pictures, including an incendiary photo of an American female soldier parading an Iraqi prisoner on a leash. The Post's only nod to journalistic context was their admission that they weren't sure if the photos were staged or not.


If the Abu Ghraib scandal is the metaphorical - or perhaps literal - rape of the Iraqi people so many claim it to be, why isn't there just a bit more media ethics thumb-sucking over a major American newspaper publishing photos it can't confirm are real?

Obviously, very real abuses occurred at Abu Ghraib, but news operations don't show pictures of rape victims, never mind actual rapes, even when they're sure they're real and the consequences for doing so are comparatively meager.

Peter Preston, the former editor of The Guardian, once told his reporters that there would be no bonuses for producing a scoop that got somebody killed, according to the Newseum's Web site. "It is not necessarily a question of patriotism, it is a sense of realism that you don't want to put the lives of your fellow countrymen at risk."

Well, CBS' scoop has gotten someone killed and there will be more deaths, on both sides, as a result of this story before it becomes history.

Now we're hearing demands that all of the photos collected by the Pentagon be released immediately. Never mind that if the U.S. government releases pictures of POWs being humiliated we'll be violating the Geneva Convention - again.

More to the point, releasing more photos won't advance the story any better than words would, and new photos would do even more damage than the first batch.

But, as I said, it's time to put up or shut up. If the media wants to advance the Abu Ghraib story rather than wallow in it, its course is clear. It can help Americans "appreciate" the Nick Berg beheading by showing it over and over. I don't know if that would be a good idea, but at least the press would be consistent.