Iraq, Abu Ghraib prison, and Media Treason

I happened to catch the broadcast, last weeks, of the CBS 60Minutes II story about American soldiers and Pentagon contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners. Sometimes I have trouble getting past minor details of such stories.

In this case, I got hung up on the admission, at the end of the program, that CBS had held the story for more than a week at the request of the Bush administration, so as not to inflame public opinion:

Two weeks ago, 60 Minutes II received an appeal from the Defense Department, and eventually from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, to delay this broadcast — given the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq.

60 Minutes II decided to honor that request, while pressing for the Defense Department to add its perspective to the incidents at Abu Ghraib prison. This week, with the photos beginning to circulate elsewhere, and with other journalists about to publish their versions of the story, the Defense Department agreed to cooperate in our report.

(Full story transcript is here.)

I wondered: “Is it the proper role of CBS to hide news from the American public?”

I can understand keeping the lid on a secret military operation authorized by legitimate authorities, but the concealment of crimes committed by U.S. forces didn’t seem right. Anyway, the news was out, and I was interested to see what the New York Times would make of it the next day.

Seven the morning, unfold the paper, scan the front page. Nothing. Hmmm. Perhaps my news judgment differs from that of the Times’ editors? Or maybe the story broke too late? Ah, no, there it was, deep inside, a very short piece without photos. Perhaps they were on deadline and did not have time for full coverage. But again, the next day, it was barely mentioned. Only later did it finally hit the front page, as it continued to blow up into a scandal.

This mystified me. By coincidence, I recently watched a documentary on the history of the Weather Underground in the late sixties and early seventies. It was a touching movie that captured the utter confusion of these fringe revolutionaries, some of whom seemed to have been driven nearly insane with despair by the television images of the Vietnam war.

Was the U.S media trying to protect us, to help us keep things in perspective, to prevent vulnerable young people from turning into deranged terrorists? If so, that was a noble goal. We should have a rational discussion about the war. After all, the images of the Vietnam war playing nightly on America’s televisions created widespread hysteria and made serious pursuit of our war aims difficult.

Or did they?

The role of the American media in ending the Vietnam war is still being debated. Some resent the media for waiting a long time before focusing attention on American atrocities. For instance, Fairness and Accuracy In Media points out that the press never aggressively criticized the war until long after public opinion had turned. Jeff Cohen writes:

Of the many myths that mushroomed from the carnage of the Vietnam War perhaps none is more specious than the fable about how a bold, aggressive mainstream media turned America against the war… Beginning months after My Lai, evidence of the massacre was presented to top national news media by Vietnam veteran Ron Ridenhour and others, but not one outlet would touch the story. It wasn’t until November 1969, more than a year and a half after the My Lai slaughter, that the story was finally published by the small, alternative Dispatch News Service and dogged investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

(Cohen’s full piece is here.)

On the other hand, you can find right wing sites decrying the unfair coverage of the war, which they believed presented a biased picture that led to a needless withdrawal and to an unnecessary Communist victory. The United States would have had a better chance in Vietnam had the media not been dominated by liberals, claims Accuracy in Media’s Reed Irvine. And as Leonard Magruder, of Vietnam Veterans for Academic Reform, writes:

Reporting by CBS, ABC, and NBC over an extended period in 1968 show a steady drumbeat of anti-government voices, unified in an assault on the war. Little or no opinion in support of the war was allowed on any of the three networks even though as late as Oct. 1969 the majority of Americans, according to pollster Lou Harris, still supported a military victory in Vietnam.

(Magruder’s ten part essay can be found here.)

So the left finds the media guilty of cowardice and points to the fact that the details of the My Lai massacre were kept out of the mainstream press for nearly a year and a half, while the right also finds the media guilty of cowardice and points to the fact that, for instance, the Tet offensive was widely presented as a blow to the American war effort when, militarily, it was a Communist defeat.

Later, at the height of bombing campaign, Republican frustration with too-critical coverage grew intense. In his memoirs, Nixon reports that on Christmas day, 1972,

“…it was especially gratifying to receive calls of support from Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan… Reagan said CBS, under World War II circumstances, would have been perhaps charged with treason.”

After Christmas, Nixon did not back down:

“There was considerable pressure from some of the staff to continue the Christmas truce for a few more days. But I disagreed completely. In fact, I personally ordered one of the biggest bombing raids for December 26: 116 B-52 sorties were flown against targets in the Hanoi-Haiphone area. That afternoon the North Vietnamese sent the first signal that they had enough. We received a message from them condemning what they called ‘extermination bombing…'”

Nixon’s conduct of the war was undeterred, at least in this case, by hostile press coverage.

Nonetheless, I suspect that the institutional experience of the Vietnam era subtly influences the American press as it deals with the story of our soldiers and contractors torturing Iraqi prisoners. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether you believe that the media actively led the American public into opposition to the war, or if you merely admit that the media amplified a rising note of public outrage. In either case, the media failed to do what some would consider to be their primary job: rally support for citizens behind the policies of their government, soothe their fears, respond to their concerns, strengthen their unity, and forge a motley populace into a coherent military, cultural, and economic force. The drumbeat of dissent from otherwise mainstream news organizations weakened America at a crucial time, according to right wing critics, and allowed Communism to triumph in Vietnam.

We were fighting in Vietnam because the Communist threat, like today’s terrorist thread, was global. If Vietnam were to fall, as it quickly did after the U.S. withdrawal, then the rest of Southeast Asia would inevitably succumb, and the rest of the world would be gravely threatened. This theory ñ known as the domino theory – explains we are living under a universal regime of Communist tyranny today.

Well, some parts of this analysis may need work. But the essence of it, that the media failed to adequately serve as the propaganda arm for the White House, continues to resonate. Therefore, today’s mainstream media organizations are obligated to be very careful with the army-contractor-torture news. CBS, while in possession of the damning photographs, kept them off the air at first, and broadcast the story only when it began to circulate elsewhere. The next day, the New York Times buried the story deep in the front section (without photos). As the weekend passed, and news organizations around the world began to do their work, the story slowly rose into a major scandal in the U.S. Our press could no longer easily avoid it. They were being forced, once again, into a risky, oppositional role.

Certainly the same cries of bias or even treason will now arise.

For a detailed assessment of the myth that the mainstream media turned an otherwise obedient public against the war in Vietnam, see this essay by the late Peter Braestrup: The News Media and the War in Vietnam – Myths and Realities.

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