Why Oh Why Can’t We Have a Better Press Corps? (outsourced from Brad De Long edition)

by Henry Farrell on September 6, 2006

Eric Umansky (via “Laura Rozen”:http://warandpiece.com/) has a great “article”:http://www.cjr.org/issues/2006/5/Umansky.asp in the CJR on how newspapers dealt with stories about torture and murder in Iraq. For example, this story about the _New York Times_.

Gall filed a story, on February 5, 2003, about the deaths of Dilawar and another detainee. It sat for a month, finally appearing two weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “I very rarely have to wait long for a story to run,” says Gall. “If it’s an investigation, occasionally as long as a week.” Gall’s story, it turns out, had been at the center of an editorial fight. Her piece was “the real deal. It referred to a homicide. Detainees had been killed in custody. I mean, you can’t get much clearer than that,” remembers Roger Cohen, then the Times’s foreign editor. “I pitched it, I don’t know, four times at page-one meetings, with increasing urgency and frustration. I laid awake at night over this story. And I don’t fully understand to this day what happened. It was a really scarring thing. My single greatest frustration as foreign editor was my inability to get that story on page one.”

Doug Frantz, then the Times’s investigative editor and now the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, says Howell Raines, then the Times’s top editor, and his underlings “insisted that it was improbable; it was just hard to get their mind around. They told Roger to send Carlotta out for more reporting, which she did. Then Roger came back and pitched the story repeatedly. It’s very unusual for an editor to continue to push a story after the powers that be make it clear they’re not interested. Roger, to his credit, pushed.” (Howell Raines declined requests for comment.) “Compare Judy Miller’s WMD stories to Carlotta’s story,” says Frantz. “On a scale of one to ten, Carlotta’s story was nailed down to ten. And if it had run on the front page, it would have sent a strong signal not just to the Bush administration but to other news organizations.” Instead, the story ran on page fourteen under the headline “U.S.Military Investigating Death of Afghan in Custody.” (It later became clear that the investigation began only as a result of Gall’s digging.)

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09.06.06 at 3:46 pm



joel turnipseed 09.06.06 at 12:14 pm

Just to get things started here: I don’t just think it was the Times that had a hard time getting their head around the possibility of murder. Or that it’s such an easy thing to do–either in determining whether such a thing took place in the context of war, or having determined so, comprehending how fucked up things/people had gotten that such crimes could have taken place.

I was doing studio commentary for Fox when word came in that an Army convoy had been attacked, with several members killed, perhaps in grizzly fashion, and many others were missing (this turned out to be the opening of Jessica Lynch saga) & saying on camera that “atrocities have been part of war since Troy and that, while they should retain their power to shock us, they should never surprise us.” The air in the studio, which I shared with a former Army colonel and several helmet-hair babes from Fox, got thick real quick with “Did he just fucking say that on air?” Dropping Homer no doubt attributed to the “WTF!” atmosphere, but I’m sure the “no suprise” added considerable fog of its own.

Which is to say: I feel a lot more comfortable slamming Judith Miller for stumping for WMD propaganda than I do slamming Raines, et.al., for being weak-kneed in making outright charges of murder against troops in Iraq. Most people, even in (or having served in) the military don’t really do well at getting their heads around what happens, what it means, and how to communicate this.

There’s a lot more to say about this (about the shape of our culture nowdays, about the insularity of the military, about the permanent difficulties of communicating war’s truths, etc), but let’s see how the comments on this thread evolve…


norbizness 09.06.06 at 12:21 pm

Well, at least we have ABC drama-mentaries to balance everything out several years later (shoots TV, Elvis-style).


abb1 09.06.06 at 1:04 pm

How is this a problem of the press corps – as opposed to political system? This is like complaining about the quality of Soviet journalists. Hey, they do what they are paid to do.


Donald Johnson 09.06.06 at 2:11 pm

The Washington Post had a story about US torture in Afghanistan in late December 2002. I remember this because I wrote the NYT a long rant about their cowardice in not covering the story (at the time I wrote my rant).


Jim Harrison 09.06.06 at 2:23 pm

We keep talking about the behavior of journalists as if America had a free press in which the bad actions of a few reporters or editors were effectively policed by other reporters and editors. Under current conditions, where six or seven corporations control the means of propaganda, the rules should be different. At a minimum, we ought to stop making excuses for people like Howell Raines whose cowardice and vanity has done so much harm to his country. Greater responsibility goes along with the exercise of semi-monopoly power, and the personal penalties for abusing that responsibility should be correspondingly more severe.


Tim McG 09.06.06 at 2:42 pm

OK, people, I know the world isn’t perfect. But the fact is that these things are being uncovered in the time frame of days-weeks-months, rather than years-decades. It isn’t perfect but the powerful have a lot less scope for lying than they did twenty or more years ago. Some of the powerful, of course, are still able to work the system to keep in power, staying one step ahead of the angry march of Truth, but, quite frankly, that’s what the powerful [and corrupt] have always done.


P O'Neill 09.06.06 at 2:58 pm

I think abb1 has a point on a day when the President can say something like the following:

Second, the Supreme Court’s recent decision has impaired our ability to prosecute terrorists through military commissions, and has put in question the future of the CIA program. In its ruling on military commissions, the Court determined that a provision of the Geneva Conventions known as “Common Article Three” applies to our war with al Qaeda. This article includes provisions that prohibit “outrages upon personal dignity” and “humiliating and degrading treatment.” The problem is that these and other provisions of Common Article Three are vague and undefined, and each could be interpreted in different ways by American or foreign judges. And some believe our military and intelligence personnel involved in capturing and questioning terrorists could now be at risk of prosecution under the War Crimes Act — simply for doing their jobs in a thorough and professional way.


Jim Harrison 09.06.06 at 3:14 pm

While we can piously hope that new media like the Internet can provide a check on the abuses of government, the vast majority of people get their information from the networks and the papers and these institutions are much more likely to support the powers than be than to allow any effective criticism of them. What we’ve learned from the last couple of decades is that if a journalist lacks effective access to the public, it doesn’t matter very much if what he says is demonstrably true; and if a journalist does have access to a major propaganda medium, it doesn’t matter very much if what he says is demonstrably false.


otto 09.06.06 at 3:52 pm

[I dont feel comfortable] slamming Raines, et.al., for being weak-kneed in making outright charges of murder against troops in Iraq. Most people, even in (or having served in) the military don’t really do well at getting their heads around what happens [i.e. murder], what it means, and how to communicate this.

It is exactly because the people in the military dont want to know about this that we need so slam Raines and co. for being weak-kneed in making outright charges of murder against troops in Iraq.


y81 09.06.06 at 8:40 pm

Does this Brad DeLong imitation mean that you will be deleting critical comments from now on?


Sven 09.06.06 at 9:08 pm

I feel a lot more comfortable slamming Judith Miller for stumping for WMD propaganda than I do slamming Raines, et.al., for being weak-kneed in making outright charges of murder against troops in Iraq.

As Umansky’s story notes, the press’ failure to connect the dots left the troops – the “bad apples” – holding the bag when administration policy was the root of the problem.


C. L. Ball 09.06.06 at 11:07 pm

Why Oh Why Can’t We Have Better Bloggers? How many blogs picked up the Gall and the Priest & Gellman stories?

Turnipseed is right about the naivete of the US press, however. When the four contractors’ corpses were mutilated and displayed at Fallujah, I was shocked at how shocked the media was. What do they think happens during wars?


joel turnipseed 09.07.06 at 12:01 am

Interesting… I would have thought this thread would acquire a lot more volatility throughout the day. Guess we should have tossed a random “Israel” in there somewhere.

Abb1–Yeah, there’s a certain kind of cynicism I can grok… certainly the publishers & broadcasters have advertisers & audiences to maintain: but I wonder if it’s healthy to go there wholesale? We did have, after all, the Pentagon Papers-or even more recently, the great Toledo Blade piece on the “Tiger Force.” Or even: pretty wide-spread coverage of the “Generals’ Revolt” this spring, & more recently, the Army prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty in (just one of) the big Iraqi war crimes investigations, no?

Otto–Surely you’re not suggesting that the U.S. commanders know/feel less about the nuances of war crimes than the journalists at the Times, Post, etcetera? I’ll grant you there are a few assholes in the officer corps, but as someone who used to resist them (I was busted three times as a Marine) & now talks to them w/some degree of frequency (and much more authority), I can say they’re among the most articulate, impassioned group of people you’ll ever come across. That’s not to say their ‘day job’ isn’t a nightmare and that many of them would do better to quit it–because it is and they would–but it’s to say: a lot more than you’d think are well aware of the bullshit, the compromises, etcetera, and if they didn’t think we needed the best, most thoughtful military in the world, they’d leave tomorrow. A good example of a guy who upholds this ideal (and did decide to quit) is Nathanial Fick. His memoir (as well as Evan Wright’s account of his Marine Recon Platoon’s service in Iraq) is definitely worth checking out (though it should be said his isn’t the only one worth reading: Quang Pham’s Gulf War memoir as Vietnamese-American Marine aviator is superb, as is Andrew Exum’s “This Man’s Army”–and those only the officer corps memoirs worth reading).

Sven–the big problem, as I see it, with the “bad apples” theory is it gets things half wrong, from both sides. The fact is, there are trailer park de Sades–petty sadists you used to see playing Jai-Alai with garden rakes and toads at Camp LeJeune–as well as more-or-less straight-up guys who get pressured into bullshit from a top-down authority that discounts the laws of land warfare & even of human life. There are also a lot of commanders who don’t want to see even one life lost during their mission, Iraqi or American. Even if we had Eisenhower and Bradley running things in Iraq, you’d still have atrocities, as even in the Pacific in WWII we had Marines collecting Japanese ears, skulls, etcetera & there were a number of high-profile prosecutions of war crimes in both Europe and, shockingly, within the continental U.S. during WWII. That we had Gonzales, Rumsfeld, et. al., pushing the boundaries of human rights past all acceptable limits only makes the matter worse, without question–but in the end: if you look deep into the nature of squad/platoon/company/battalion dynamics, I’m sure you’ll find a pretty fascinating dynamic of resistance/response from both sides of this moral & that it’s just not possible to say “bad apples” OR “bad Executive Branch.” Both are true, really, though manifest themselves only in very complicated circumstances & individual cases.


abb1 09.07.06 at 1:59 am

I don’t think it’s cynicism to look for an institutional flaw, rather than cursing at every individual Howell Raines out there.


engels 09.08.06 at 2:30 pm

Joel – You don’t seem to have grasped the points which have been made to you. Firstly, noone who argues that it’s not about “bad apples” is arguing that “bad apples” can’t exist: that would just be silly. When people pejoratively refer to “bad apples” as an explanation they are talking about the claim that no blame is to be attached to the institution or policy-makers at all and it’s all the fault of particular (and usually low-ranking) individuals. You appear to realise that this is not true in this case but it’s a bit silly of you to waffle on at Sven, about how it’s

just not possible to say “bad apples” OR “bad Executive Branch.” Both are true, really, though manifest themselves only in very complicated circumstances & individual cases

imagining that he or anybody else doesn’t see this too. It was IIRC his point.

Secondly, your reply to Otto – that the US officers corps are, in your opinion, fine, upstanding people – completely misses the point. The argument is that within any institution the people on the inside are usually less ready to make critical judgments of the institution and of its other members than outsiders are. They don’t have to be “assholes” to think this way, although if a lot of them were it might make the effect more pronounced. In the case of the army, it’s easy to think of reasons why this effect will be especially strong. Therefore it sounds quite bizarre when you say that even the army has problems facing up to what has happened: of course it has and we would expect the army to be among the worst offenders in this regard. But it’s supposed to be the job of the media to force them to face up to it.

So perhaps you ought to have another go at your #14, this time trying to reply to what people have actually said.


Tom Doyle 09.09.06 at 3:37 am

How many blogs picked up the Gall and the Priest & Gellman stories?

I blogged about Gall’s article, inter alia:


Three articles below suggest that the United States government might be torturing people – torturing them to death in some cases…



The World Socialist Web Site has many articles on torture and related subjects. Below is the first WSWS article related to the deaths at Baghram.

Detainee dies during US interrogation in Afghanistan
By Peter Symonds
11 December 2002
Neither the New York Times nor other media outlets have raised any questions about the death or criticised the treatment being meted out to alleged terrorist suspects, in breach of their most basic democratic rights. A man can be detained indefinitely without charge and die in unexplained circumstances—and the media, including the so-called liberal New York Times, passes over the matter in silence.

There are only a limited number of possibilities. In normal circumstances, young men do not suddenly die. The detainee may have been sick, injured or wounded—either before or during his capture—in which case he should have been taken to hospital, not an interrogation centre. Or he may have fallen ill, and, likewise, been given proper medical treatment. The only other possibility is that the interrogation itself contributed directly to his death. Whichever is the case, serious questions of gross negligence and/or mistreatment are raised.
It appears, however, that the interrogation regime at Bagram Air Base is even more aggressive [than Guantanamo]. According to an October 29 article in the Washington Post, “Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is losing its usefulness as a place for gathering valuable intelligence information, while interrogations at the US military base at Bagram, and elsewhere abroad, have proven more fruitful…

“Because Guantanamo is so close to the United States and is continually being visited by US and foreign officials, informed sources said, the camp operates in more of an atmosphere of ‘political correctness’ than does the Bagram facility—a sense among interrogators that they must not allow detainees an opening to complain of mistreatment.”

At Bagram, which operates in “more of a frontier atmosphere”, interrogators feel no such constraint. The military insists it operates within rules that ban the use of physical and mental torture, drugs and the exposure to inhumane treatment. But no one is permitted inside the facility. Other than an occasional visit by the international Red Cross, there is no check on the treatment of prisoners…Similar methods are being used in Kabul, just 60 km from Bagram.



David Rose March 14, 2004

For two years the Tipton Three have been silent prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Now, in this remarkable interview with David Rose, they describe for the first time the extraordinary story of their journey from the West Midlands to Camp Delta


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