“Failures of Imagination”

“FAILURES OF IMAGINATION”….Eric Umansky has a terrific article in the Columbia Journalism Review this month about the media’s post-9/11 coverage of the Bush administration’s policies toward torture, rendition, and “coercive interrogation.” The press deserves praise for the stories they finally broke, he says, but the overall picture is decidedly mixed:

When the record on torture coverage is examined in detail, an ambiguous picture emerges: in the post-9/11 days, some reporters offered detailed accusations and reports of abuse and torture, only to be met with skepticism by their own editors. Stories were buried, played down, or ignored ? a reluctance that is much diminished but still bubbles up with regard to the culpability of policymakers.

The Abu Ghraib story, for example, didn’t burst like a bombshell, as so many people now remember. It dribbled out very slowly:

With headlines blaring across the world, and near-endless coverage on Arab networks such as Al Jazeera, President Bush made his first public comments about the abuse two days after the photos aired.

And that is what, finally, lent Abu Ghraib big-story status: not allegations of abuse or even the photos confirming them, but revulsion abroad and the president?s reaction to it. “Bush Denounces Troops? Treatment of Prisoners,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Times in its first front-page story on Abu Ghraib, on May 1, 2004.

The floodgates then opened, and what was revealed was far more than random acts of sadism toward detainees at Abu Ghraib. Now that the story had ?been ratified as important,? as the writer Michael Massing put it in The New York Review of Books, journalists pushing for significant coverage of abuse were no longer sticking their necks out. They were part of the pack.

That’s exactly right. Here’s a post I wrote two days after the Abu Ghraib pictures were first aired, for example, noting that while the pictures were splashed all over Arab newspapers and TV stations, “only a handful of U.S. newspapers gave the story significant play.”

Read the whole thing. Eric has done a great job reminding us of how skeptical reporters and editors were in those days about allegations of abuse ? and especially about allegations that the abuse was deliberate administration policy ? despite the fact that their own reporters were often the ones who had dug up the evidence. It’s a story with a moral.