Missed Signals: Why Did It Take So Long for the News Media to Break the Story of Prisoner Abuse at Abu Ghraib?

By Ricchiardi, Sherry | American Journalism Review, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

Missed Signals: Why Did It Take So Long for the News Media to Break the Story of Prisoner Abuse at Abu Ghraib?


Ricchiardi, Sherry, American Journalism Review


Donald H. Rumsfeld could not pass up a chance to gloat.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

During a town hall-style meeting with Pentagon workers on May 11, the defense secretary smugly noted that it was "the military, not the media" that discovered and reported the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, a hellhole 20 miles west of Baghdad.

Rumsfeld's remarks touched a nerve.

Because, for a variety of reasons, the media were awfully slow to unearth a scandal that ultimately caused international embarrassment for the United States and cast a shadow over the war in Iraq. Images of American prison guards using sexual humiliation and snarling guard dogs to terrify naked Arab prisoners may well have lasting repercussions for U.S. foreign policy.

What's worse, there was no shortage of signs that something was amiss. For two years, global monitors such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch repeatedly warned of mistreatment of detainees at the hands of Americans in the dark recesses of Afghanistan and at the holding tank for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

And there were prescient stories, stories that appeared and then vanished without a trace. On December 26, 2002, the Washington Post published a breakthrough piece on the CIA's "brass-knuckled quest for information" in Afghanistan. In March 2003, a cover story in The Nation said that torture was gaining acceptance in the Bush administration. In November, the Associated Press was among the first to raise alarms about abuse at Abu Ghraib--but few of the AP's clients showcased the story, if they ran it at all.

Then, on January 16 of this year, the U.S. Command in Baghdad issued a one-paragraph press release: "An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner."

The tantalizing but sketchy release didn't exactly set off a media firestorm. The New York Times published a 367-word report on page 7, noting that the inquiry was expected to "add fuel" to the burgeoning allegations of abuse. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a 707-word story, also played on page 7, headlined, "U.S. probes report of abuse of Iraqi detainees." The Washington Post and USA Today did not run stories on the release, according to a Lexis-Nexis search. The Boston Globe had about 100 words on the investigation at the end of an 844-word Iraq story on A4. The Dallas Morning News ran a 20-word brief on 26A. Television largely ignored the announcement: CNN and Fox News Channel mentioned it briefly on January 16, NBC had a 41-word item the following morning, and that was about it.

Then the story largely disappeared. Few followed the misty clue.

Three-and-a-half months later, the degradation at Abu Ghraib finally became major international news after CBS' "60 Minutes II" on April 28 aired ghastly photographs of U.S. military police posing and grinning next to naked, hooded Iraqi prisoners. Two days later, The New Yorker posted Seymour M. Hersh's scorching account of prisoner mistreatment at the prison.

Why did it take so long for the news media to uncover the scandal? What went wrong?

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. wishes his newspaper had gone harder after the story at the outset. But, he asks, referring to the January press release, "Have you ever read that paragraph? They made it as innocent-sounding as possible, and it just wasn't noticed the way it should have been."

Journalists were not aggressive enough and were slow to grasp the significance of the military's announcement, says Philip Taubman, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief. "We didn't do our job with this until the photographs appeared on CBS" and Hersh's story hit the Internet. …

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