Photos turned abuse into a scandal

Crisis In Iraq

May 08, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

The U.S. military first revealed in mid-January that it had ordered a criminal inquiry into allegations that American troops had abused Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison. On March 20, senior military officials in Baghdad said some troops faced criminal counts. And already human rights groups had lodged protests.

But the charges did not become a full-fledged scandal until last week, when CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast images showing the degradation of Iraqis by grinning American soldiers.

Did the media miss the story? Not exactly. It was reported but stayed largely under the radar for lack of information and the distraction of other troubling developments in Iraq to cover.

"This story has exploded with the release of the pictures themselves, leaving no doubt about the validity of reports of abuse," Vaughn Ververs, editor of the political newsletter the Hotline, wrote yesterday. "But there is more than a bit of false outrage on the part of those involved, as well as the media."

Some outlets - such as CNN and The Miami Herald - filed what now seem prescient pieces. "Given what we knew and had access to, I think the media did a responsible job," Carol Rosenberg, a Herald reporter, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

As she notes, there was no clear-cut evidence, nor any easy way to find abuse victims whose stories could be verified. The military kept tight controls on the inquiry, releasing few details. And later the Pentagon fought to keep the graphic pictures from reaching the public eye, repeatedly urging CBS News to delay its broadcast.

Yet until that April 28 report by CBS, the allegations did not win much attention.

"I find myself getting a very fundamental lesson," says CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, who reported on the allegations but was unable to obtain the photographs. "If you don't get the pictures, it's not a [television] story - and what a damn shame that is."

In mid-January, the Pentagon's announcement of an investigation drew modest coverage. Officials said they withheld details to protect the inquiry. On Jan. 16, The New York Times published a 376-word article on Page 7. The Chicago Tribune dedicated a few paragraphs in a short article about attacks against coalition forces the next day.

In reports Jan. 21 and Jan. 26, CNN's Starr said that military investigators were pursuing leads from photographs, which her sources said showed soldiers hitting detainees and prisoners who were partially unclad.

A month later, wire services and newspapers noted the suspension of 17 U.S. troops - including a battalion commander and a company commander - for abusing detainees at the prison. On March 7, the Times devoted 1,260 words to a front-page article about the plight of family members of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. The article alluded to the suspensions.

When Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt announced March 20 that criminal charges had been filed against six military police, he withheld descriptions of acts that led to the charges and suggested that more details would be forthcoming. They weren't.

Major newspapers - including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and The Washington Post - reported on the charges, as did CNN's Starr. Rosenberg's second Herald article put readers on notice, stating: "Short on details, senior U.S. military officials continued to shield soldiers embroiled in a prisoner-abuse scandal at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison." That article was picked up by other Knight-Ridder papers.

But a database search shows scant follow-up by network television newscasts or major newspapers.

"Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper other than The New York Times or The Washington Post knows that oftentimes stories are missed that have been reported" elsewhere, says Matthew V. Storin, former editor of The Boston Globe.

The subject of abuse by U.S. troops faded - until the pictures surfaced on CBS.

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