Stories Not Told
As distrust of the press grows, news articles are relentlessly scrutinized for bias, but almost no one is focusing on stories that are simply ignored. For instance, a May 18 report in the Afghan newspaper Kabul Weekly said the riots that killed 17 people were not about disrespect for the Koran in American detainment camps--they were a show of force by the Taliban and another fundamentalist group, Hezb-e Eslami. "These demonstrations were organized by the Taliban and their supporters, and only some naive people joined the protesters," the newspaper said. The BBC picked up the story on May 22, but so far as I can see, it was completely ignored in American news media. If you edited, let us say, a large newspaper in Washington or New York, or a prominent newsmagazine accused of causing these famous riots, wouldn't you want to check this one out?
Another example: On a May 13 panel at the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis, Linda Foley, the national president of the Newspaper Guild, said that the U.S. military deliberately targets journalists, "not just U.S. journalists either, by the way. They target and kill journalists from other countries, particularly Arab countries, at news services like al Jazeera, for example. They actually target them and blow up their studios with impunity." We have heard this before. Eason Jordan, then a CNN executive, said something similar on a panel at Davos, the annual economic conference in Switzerland, setting off an enormous furor. Foley's comment was almost universally ignored by the news media. Thomas Lipscomb of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a column about it. More than two weeks later, Jack Kelly, national security writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio, said the Sun-Times (Lipscomb's column) was the only newspaper in the country to report what Foley said.
A column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press mentioned it, and so did an editorial in the Washington Times . Bloggers and The O'Reilly Factor brought important national attention. But a Nexis database search last week failed to turn up a straight news report on Foley's remark anywhere in America since Foley spoke on the panel. Remember, she is president of the union representing 35,000 reporters, editors, and other journalism workers. "Where is the professionalism and the authority that is our main claim to writing the indispensable 'first draft of history'?" Lipscomb asked in a follow-up piece in Editor & Publisher. He wrote, "The mainstream media couldn't be bothered to cover 'Easongate: the sequel.' " Foley sent a letter to the White House calling on it to pursue the "worldwide speculation that the U.S. military targets journalists and the media." In other words, she doesn't have to back up her charge, but the White House should start trying to prove that what she said is false.
Rule 18. A different omission marred the reporting of Amnesty International's report charging torture in U.S. detainment camps. The group didn't just call Guantanamo a "gulag," an over-the-top remark that was universally reported. In a press release that most reporters ignored, the group also invited foreign governments to snatch certain visiting American officials off the streets and bring them to trial for crimes against humanity. The suggested snatchees, should they travel abroad, were President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former CIA Director George Tenet, and other unnamed civilian and military officials. Amnesty International said that "all states have a responsibility to investigate and prosecute people responsible for these crimes," just as the British pounced on Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998. The snatching recommendation wasn't new, but the Amnesty press release is a useful reminder of the dangers of signing on to the International Criminal Court.
Mainstream media have been reluctant, in all the coverage of treatment of detainees at Guantanamo, to mention that the al Qaeda training manual specifically instructs all of its agents to make false claims of torture. The New York Times seems to have mentioned the manual's torture reference only once, in a short report from Australia. Several other papers mentioned it as a one-line quote from a military spokesman who pointed it out. But until the Washington Times ran a front-page piece last week, a Nexis search could find no clear and pointed article in the U.S. press like the one by Alasdair Palmer in the London Sunday Telegraph, with the headline "This is al Qaeda Rule 18: 'You must claim you were tortured.' " He wrote that the manual doesn't prove "that the Britons were not tortured in Guantanamo. But it ought to encourage some doubts about uncritically accepting that they were--which seems to be the attitude adopted by most of the media." Amen to both points in that last sentence.
This story appears in the June 13, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.