Reality check

The media are finally showing the war in its full horror. What took them so long?

By Eric Boehlert

Published May 6, 2004 11:31PM (EDT)

Images of captured Iraqis being abused and humiliated ended the deadly month of April, which began with editors and producers grappling with how to handle images of the charred bodies of four U.S. private contractors killed in Fallujah. In between were haunting images of American kidnap victims, both civilian and military. Then on April 18, Americans saw their first glimpse of row after row of flag-draped coffins being flown home for burial, images the Bush administration had fought to keep under wraps.

As dispatches from Iraq grow grim, the casualty rate hits new highs and domestic support for the war drops, the debate over what news images of war are proper, tolerable or acceptable is becoming increasingly polarized. Even the announcement last week that ABC's "Nightline" would honor the dead soldiers in Iraq with a roll call sparked heated controversy. This division over imagery occurs amid a presidential election in which voters' perception of the war -- shaped by media accounts and presentations -- may prove pivotal.

April's unexpected chaos in Iraq may signal a shift toward bolder, grittier wartime press coverage. For an entire year before then, much of the mainstream American news media was dutiful, if not outright timid. There were still remnants of hesitation when the Abu Ghraib prison story broke last week, particularly in how major U.S. newspapers tentatively dealt with the disturbing images on their front pages. CBS's "60 Minutes II" unveiled the now-famous photos exclusively on Wednesday night, April 28, and by Friday morning they were widely available to the press. Network television newscasts and cable outlets broadcast the images. On Saturday, nearly 20 large American newspapers ran Page 1 articles about the story. But of those, only a handful, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, ran any photographs of the abused captives on A1.

The rest, including the New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Detroit News and Free Press, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Columbus Dispatch and Oakland Tribune, ran Page 1 stories about the controversial photos without actually publishing images alongside their stories. On Monday, USA Today, which does not publish on weekends, joined the list of newspapers whose editors decided that coverage of the abuse photos was worthy of the front-page but not the actual images themselves.

"They're clearly newsworthy, Page 1 photos," says Norman Solomon, author of "Target Iraq: What the Media Didn't Tell You." "The press, physiologically, is still embedded with the Pentagon, to a degree. I think there's a squeamishness among American editors because the [abuse] photographs run so counter to the image of the war that's been portrayed by a press -- a war of liberation."

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller insists that had nothing to do with why the paper opted to run the photos inside the paper. "By the time we had assurance that the pictures were genuine, they had been so widely distributed [on television] that we opted to run a couple of the pictures inside rather than front them," he explains. For Keller, the episode was just the latest example of how the country's deep partisan divide often projects itself onto news coverage. "People who think the war is wrong feel the coverage is sanitized. Those who feel the war is right are in favor of pictures of victory and 'Mission Accomplished.'"

Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, agrees: "Readers see the coverage through their own prism and ideological views of the war."

Still, the accusation continues to echo that American news consumers have received a strangely sanitized, sheltered version of the war in the Persian Gulf, particularly given the new communication technologies that allow journalists to report -- with pictures -- nearly instantaneously from the battlefield, and especially for a war that has resulted in perhaps tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties and nearly 900 coalition casualties. The suspicion is that the press has become increasingly fearful in a conservative political climate because it's afraid to appear unpatriotic -- or liberal -- by dwelling too heavily or realistically on negative images of the war.

"I certainly think we've seen an extremely sanitized version of the war," says Peter Howe, author of "Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer." "There are very few images of Iraq casualties, let alone American casualties; and it's a real problem because as a nation we are consistently unprepared for the reality of war. Unless we understand the full implication of our actions, as a democracy we can't make a reasonable assessment of when it's the right time to go to war. If war is divorced from daily life, as a video game [is], we can't make judgments, and we find ourselves mired in something we did not expect."

Howe notes that unlike during the first Gulf War when battlefield images were tightly controlled -- even censored -- by the U.S. military, photographers in Iraq, whether embedded or unilateral, have had complete freedom to shoot whatever they wanted. Yet he suggests that the mainstream media's images remain oddly uniform and, until very recently, clean and simplistic. "There's censorship being applied, but by the media itself," says Howe. "Everybody is running scared."

It's clear the administration is paying very close attention to the war coverage, and making its complaints known. Last Oct. 13, the president complained that "there's a sense that people in America aren't getting the truth" regarding Iraq. He pointed to the "media filter" and the lack of reporting on positive developments in the country, such as the opening of schools and hospitals and the introduction of new currency. More recently, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last week took time out of his daily briefing to nitpick a Los Angeles Times headline. (He disapproved of "Mosques Targeted in Fallujah" and suggested the paper should have gone with "Terrorists Attack Coalition Forces From Mosques.") Last week the administration once again complained to the foreign minister of Qatar about the news coverage on Al-Jazeera, the Arab world's only semiautonomous cable outlet, protesting that it focuses too much on Iraqi civilian casualties.

Press critics say that the badgering has paid off at home. They point to the fact that just days after major combat began last year, ABC News president David Westin vowed the network would never air pictures of dead American POWs because "they're not newsworthy." His statement was made right after Lt. Gen. John Abizaid called POW footage "disgusting" and "absolutely unacceptable."

More recently, CBS News acquiesced to pressure from the Pentagon and held off airing its story -- and photographs -- of the abused Iraqi prisoners for nearly two weeks. It was only when the New Yorker made clear it was planning to publish a similar story that CBS ran its segment.

Meanwhile, hard numbers bear out anecdotal evidence of a prettification of the war. A study by George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, which examined 600 hours of coverage on CNN, FOX News Channel and ABC from the start of the war on March 20 to the fall of Baghdad on April 9, found that only 13.5 percent of the 1,710 stories analyzed included any shots of dead or wounded coalition soldiers, Iraqi soldiers or civilians. And fewer than 4 percent of the 5,087 individual shots of either battles or casualties that were analyzed showed dead soldiers or civilians.

"Americans see a bloodless, victimless war, unless when Americans die, and then we don't see any pictures at all," adds As'ad AbuKhalil, author of "Bin Laden, Islam, and America's New 'War on Terrorism.'" "Patriotism really challenges the journalism standards we've seen," says AbuKhalil, an expert on Arab media who teaches politics at California State University at Stanislaus.

Similarly, a study last year by FAIR, the liberal media watchdog group, analyzed 319 on-camera sources who appeared in stories about Iraq on the nightly network newscasts -- "ABC World News Tonight," "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News" -- during October 2003. It found that of the 319 sources, 244, or 76 percent, were current or former government or military officials.

"There seems to be an underlying feeling that big media is in bed with the government and have decided on the version of the war you'll see," says MaryAnne Golon, picture editor at Time magazine. "I don't think it applies to Time; we've run some tough images [of the war] in the magazine. But I've heard that criticism over and over."

Many observers note that the war is being portrayed in drastically different ways by the international press, where disturbing war images are often the norm. "It's considerably easier to get stronger images published in the European press," notes Howe. In fact, it was the Spanish television station Telecinco -- not Arab media -- that aired the grisliest images from Fallujah, complete with unaltered video of the charred corpses being dragged through the streets. "Europe has a collective consciousness about its own wars, and therefore there's a greater understanding of the reality of war," says Howe.

Regardless of their political leaning, European press outfits do a better job of painting a more complete picture of the situation in Iraq, and of the mounting hurdles the United States faces, such as its diplomatic collapse in the region, says John MacArthur, author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War": "One gets a much better sense of what's going on in Iraq by reading the center-right Financial Times of London than reading the New York Times or the Washington Post or the San Francisco Chronicle." Europeans often get their war news faster as well. Last Friday the Guardian in London ran a front-page photo of an abused Iraqi prisoner -- a full day before U.S. dailies ran the story or touched the image.

American journalists dismiss the charge of sanitized, or one-sided, war coverage. "To suggest we have ignored the tragedy of death is incorrect," says Baron at the Globe. "In terms of the fighting, we're showing some pretty powerful stuff," says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage for CBS News. "The other night on the 'Evening News' we showed soldiers carrying a wounded body out on a door, using it as stretcher. If I were a mother who had a son over there, I'd be having a heart attack. I don't think viewers are getting a sanitized version of the war. I think they're seeing some pretty horrible images -- and that's being reflected in the recent poll results" that indicate a steady decline in support for the war.

The working press receives credit from some independent observers across the political spectrum. "Coverage of the war seems to have been well handled," says former New Yorker magazine writer Michael Arlen, whose seminal book "Living Room War" examined press coverage of the Vietnam War. "I don't feel we're not being shown important stuff because of political concerns."

"I've been satisfied with the way the media has covered Iraq," adds Robert Zelnick, a political conservative who is chairman of the department of journalism at Boston University and former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News. "My premise is: Would somebody reading American newspapers and/or watching TV coverage have a good appreciation for the drift of the events there? The answer is absolutely."

Journalists appear to take comfort from the fact that their war reporting receives criticism from many quarters, suggesting that this is a sign the press is doing a balanced job. "'We show too much.' 'We show too little.' 'We are undermining the effort.' 'We are puppets of the government.' We get them all every single day," CNN anchor Aaron Brown told viewers last Friday night, reciting the litany of complaints.

But are all media complaints created equal? There's an easy argument to be made that conservative critics have successfully "worked the refs" and pushed the media debate so far toward not showing the realities of war that an unlikely starting point has become whether images of flag-draped coffins are suitable for public consumption.

When "Nightline" announced that host Ted Koppel was going to read the names of all the 700-plus U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, conservative editor William Kristol dubbed it a "stupid statement"; conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group banned the program from its eight local ABC affiliates; and Washington Post TV columnist Lisa de Moraes suggested it was a "cheap, content-free stunt designed to tug at our heartstrings and bag a big number on the second night of the May ratings race." Ironically, the debate over "Nightline" publicly honoring the fallen in Iraq unfolded the same week the new World War II Memorial opened, unofficially, in Washington. For years, veterans groups had complained that those who died in World War II were not being sufficiently honored. As one 81-year-old vet told Cox News Service last week, "Finally, they remembered there was a World War II."

"People are now offended by symbols of death," says MacArthur. "That shows how far in terms of the censorship equation we've gotten." That the names of dead soldiers or photographs of their flag-draped coffins would become sources of contention reflects "a kind of snowball of conservatism that has built up in this country during the last decade," says Howe. "And maybe 9/11 has contributed as well. There's an intense feeling of vulnerability that's new to Americans, and they don't want to think about it."

"We're conscious of that climate, but we make our decisions based on what we think is best," says Leroy Sievers, executive producer of "Nightline." He admits the network was "shocked" at how controversial its Friday broadcast became.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the altered political and journalistic climate than how the ghastly images of the charred bodies in Fallujah were handled compared with the press treatment of the equally grisly photos taken 11 years ago in Somalia, showing the corpse of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. That incident, in which 18 U.S. soldiers were killed, became the basis for the book and movie "Black Hawk Down."

American broadcasters immediately blurred the images from Fallujah, and only seven of the nation's 20 largest newspapers ran a photo on Page 1. Of those, only two, the Washington Post and USA Today, opted for arguably the most graphic: Iraqis taking turns beating the burned corpses with shoes. Most of the remaining major dailies ran the photos inside, some with editors' notes explaining the decision to publish the pictures at all.

"A lot of that came across as apologizing for having to show readers the images, and that's not appropriate," says Janet Weaver, dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training institute in Florida. "There were real contortions over the Fallujah pictures, and it showed how very uncomfortable [the press] remains with graphic images of war violence." (On Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a similar type of editor's note when it published photos of abused Iraqi prisoners.)

The mostly restrained approach after Fallujah contrasted sharply with the way the horrific pictures from Somalia were handled; then the press saw clear news value in disturbing images and gave them extensive and prominent play. Several major dailies ran the close-up Mogadishu photo on Page 1; both Time and Newsweek gave the image big play inside; and CNN, ABC and CBS all aired grotesque news clips. Back then, the press did not wait for the soldiers' families to be notified, nor did they worry about the political implications for the Clinton administration.

Wrestling with how best to use recent Fallujah photographs, Golon and other Time editors went back to see how the magazine had handled the Somalia situation and were stunned at how graphic the images the magazine published in 1993 were. "We couldn't believe the things we ran then -- a full-page image of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets. It's shocking. And it's shocking that in just 11 years' time we could find that shocking," she says. "There's a completely different mindset today. It's a reflection of the culture and the fact that the country has become more conservative in the last 11 years. We have a very conservative president."

McGinnis at CBS agrees that the network today would "be less inclined to air" Somalia-type footage. CBS's "Evening News" refused to run the Fallujah videotape, and anchor Dan Rather told viewers the images were too gruesome even for adult viewing. But Keller of the Times says if the paper received a photo of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of an Iraqi city, it would be "on the table for serious consideration" for publication in the newspaper.

Within newsrooms there is also a debate about taste: how far journalists can and should go to illustrate the consequences of war without offending their viewers and readers, a consideration related to circulation and ratings. "I don't think networks are scared of being labeled as liberal," says Judith Matloff, a journalism professor at Columbia University who teaches a course on war coverage. "They're more concerned about losing audiences by showing something very grisly. They have to be aware of angry calls coming in as well as their need to make money. You can't separate that from this issue."

"My newspaper is going into family households," says Baron at the Globe. "We don't put a lot of gruesome pictures on the front page or blood on the front page. We get sharp reactions against it, whether it's a war or a car accident."

But MacArthur argues that reporting on wars -- especially preemptive wars -- and reporting on traffic accidents are not the same thing and require very different guidelines. "War coverage is a matter of public interest," he says. "Americans have a right to know what's being done in their name. And one consequence of war is corpses. Unless you're showing corpses, you're not showing the consequences of war. Americans can't make informed decision about what to do in Iraq by censoring the reality of Iraq. It's irrational."

Peter Tobia, a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who was on assignment in Iraq for four months last year, thinks the cruel month of April marked a turning point in how the press is adjusting, and making more realistic, its war coverage. "It's taken a while for the media to become more forceful and to show and tell the real side of what's going on," he says. "I think they were trying to figure out how long the war was going to last. Was it going to be over fast, like the administration said? Now they're saying, 'OK, let's not play games anymore. Let's tell it like it is.'"

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Iraq Middle East Somalia