REPORTING FOR THE ENEMY

By Deborah Orin, Washington Bureau Chief, New York Post
Forwarded by J D Johnson

June 16, 2004 — The video only lasts four minutes or so, gruesome scenes of torture from the days when Saddam Hussein's thugs ruled Abu Ghraib prison. I couldn't bear to watch, so I walked out until it was over.

Some who stayed wished they hadn't. They told of savage scenes of decapitation, fingers chopped off one by one, tongues hacked out with a razor blade - all while victims shriek in pain and the thugs chant Saddam's praises.

Saddam's henchmen took the videos as newsreels to document their deeds in honor of their leader. But these awful images didn't show up on American TV news.

In fact, just four or five reporters showed up for the screening at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, which says it got the video via the Pentagon. Fewer wrote about it.

No surprise, since no newscast would air the videos of Nick Berg and Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl getting decapitated, or of U.S. contractors in Fallujah getting torn limb from limb by al Qaeda operatives. But every TV network has endlessly shown photos of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib. Why?

Because most [journalists] want Bush to lose,” says AEI scholar Michael Ledeen, who helped host the screening of the Saddam video.

It's not just journalists. The Pentagon has lots of Saddam atrocity footage but is loathe to release it, possibly for fear it would be taken as a crude attempt to blunt criticism of Abu Ghraib.

So the world sees photos of U.S. interrogators using dogs to scare prisoners at Abu Ghraib. But not the footage of Saddam's prisoners getting fed alive to Doberman pinschers on Saddam's watch.

Former Pentagon official Richard Perle raps “faint hearts in the administration,” saying they've bought into the idea that it's “politically incorrect” to show the horrors of Saddam's regime.

But he also faults the media after all, AEI's briefings on Iraq have been standing-room-only, but the room was half empty for the screening of the Saddam torture video. But part of the issue is simply that Saddam's tortures, like al Qaedas tactics, are so awful that they're unbearable to watch.

If I couldn't watch them myself, I'm hardly arguing that others should have to. Yet it raises a very complex problem in the War on Terror. It's worse than creating moral equivalence between Saddam's tortures and prisoner abuse by U.S. troops. It's that we do far more to highlight our own wrongdoings precisely because they are less appalling.

In this era, a photo is everything. We highlight U.S. prisoner abuse because the photos aren't too offensive to show. We downplay Saddam's abuse precisely because it's far worse so we can't use the photos. And that sets the stage for remarks like Sen. Ted Kennedy's claim that Saddam's torture chambers have reopened under “U.S. management.”

Terrorism is sometimes called asymmetric warfare America had to adjust to new tactics to deal with small bands of terrorists who were able to turn our airplanes into weapons against us. Now it turns out that we also face asymmetric propaganda where the terrorists gain a public relations advantage precisely because what they do is so horrific that our media aren't able to deal with it.

The U.S. military hasn't figured out a strategic way to deal with this problem. But neither has the press.

Media analysts like Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler admit it sounds “sanctimonious” to justify publishing prison abuse photos but not al Qaeda beheading videos in the name of showing “the reality of war.” But that is just what he did.

AEI spokeswoman Veronique Rodman, puzzled by the minimal interest in the Saddam torture video, is sure that if it was a video of equally horrific torture committed by U.S. troops, the press would find ways to show or report it.

Reporters have to face up to the fact that right now, if we highlight the wrongs that Americans commit but not out of squeamishness the far worse horrors committed by others, we become propaganda tools for the other side.

This isn't to argue in any way against reporting the Abu Ghraib scandal. But reporters have to face up to the problems and find ways to achieve a more balanced account.

Saddam's torture videos may be too awful to show, but it's hard to explain the low media interest in the story of seven Iraqi men who had their right hands chopped off by Saddam's thugs and then got new prosthetic arms and new hope in America.

They're eloquent, they're available, they're grateful for the U.S. liberation of Iraq. No one can better talk about Saddam's tortures and no one is more eager to do so. Yet, as of yesterday, the New York Times had written 177 stories on Abu Ghraib with over 40 on the front page. The self-proclaimed “paper of record” hadn't written a single story about those seven Iraqi men.