January 23, 2005

Mr. Insufferable on Abu Ghraib and the Networks

My Sundays are the worst of times and the best of times. Worst, because I have taken upon myself the task of reading the Tiffer (The Insufferable Frank Rich) in the New York Times; best because I get to comment for my immense growing audience. Today was bad also because I wrote this piece once and Blogger ate it much as Charlie, my terrier, would do if he got the chance.

Two themes usually dominate Rich’s columns:

  • Admiration for all things gay, and interpreting any dissent from this view as persecution.

  • Hostility to any whiff of Christianity, inevitably interpreted as an Inquisition or worse.

Today, however, the Tiffer’s theme is Abu Ghraib and torture, and their supposed neglect by television news. He concedes that the print media continue to cover these issues, but finds that insufficient, because “if a story isn't on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture.” He’s particularly exercised because Prince Harry’s twitty choice of an Afrika Korps uniform for a party costume got more recent coverage than the trial of Specialist Graner for abuses at the Iraqi prison.

After a ritual swipe at Fox and Bill O’Reilly, a knock on John Kerry for not making Abu Ghraib a campaign issue, and at Sen. Warner presumably for not making his investigation of Abu Ghraib perpetual, the Tiffer gets down to cases.

Aside from a half-hearted suggestion that ideological bias might be at work, Rich observes that pictures are the lifeblood of TV, and the story as he sees it has become one of documents. No surprise here, but the Tiffer doesn’t mention CBS’s blithe use of faked documents to discredit Pres. Bush during the campaign. Indeed, Rich suggests that re-playing the original Abu Ghraib photos would be misleading, because it would support the “just a few bad apples” interpretation of the events that Rich, with no evidence, suggests amounts to a whitewash. It would seem that on this issue, TV news just can’t please the Tiffer.

Not making a serious effort to suggest that ideology explains the networks’ coverage choices, Rich instead mounts one of his favorite hobby horses, suggesting that the FCC’s punitive reaction to Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple and Nicollette Sheridan’s dropped towel somehow deterred network news from covering the details of some of the Abu Ghraib abuses. He cites a few stations’ nervousness about airing Saving Private Ryan to support this thesis, to illustrate the undoubted timidity of TV management.

Considering that Amber Frey’s adulterous relationship with Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson’s weird behavior have filled the airwaves, FCC pecksniffery is a mighty weak explanation for network news’s coverage choices.

After a brief excursus through the conclusions of Sy Hersh and Mark Danner, who see Abu Ghraib as the consequence of a policy, Rich makes two suggestions:

  • Unconventionally and oddly, Rich suggests that the war’s unpopularity leads to disinterest in the prisoner abuse question. But why shouldn’t opposition to the war heighten interest in American abuses?

  • Conventionally but implausibly, the Tiffer also suggests that Abu Ghraib provokes the rise of violent opposition. Given that Ba’athist terrorism was planned and the weapons pre-positioned before the war, the Salafists regard beheadings as a religiously mandated act, and the criminal element remain criminals, to blame Abu Ghraib for terrorism in Iraq makes no sense.

The Tiffer closes by quoting Danner’s speculation that a retrospective investigation of torture will take place in five years or so.

It is probably true that TV news has not covered in great detail the ruminations and reports within government on how to handle terrorist arrestees and suspects . It’s also true that the general pattern of our handling of these people remains unclear. Unclarity is not the stuff of TV news coverage, and indeed, the eyes glaze over at most of this stuff.

But should these issues have more coverage? Where is the coverage of Saddam’s mass graves and the interviews with those who suffered in his prisons? Where is the coverage of the good news from Iraq, which Arthur Chrenkoff has turned into a niche industry? A serious examination of media coverage would likely establish an emphasis on bad news with an anti-American spin. Rich won’t look at the coverage in general terms, of course, because he likes the current bias, which he shares.

Does this mean that I am indifferent to prisoner abuse, let alone real torture? Of course not. The Abu Ghraib events were not only wrong, but they were also stupid, because the victims were not even terrorist suspects, but petty crooks and people caught up in wartime dragnets. Whether forceful interrogation is justified (or effective) in the classic “ticking bomb” case is an issue for another time, but at most it should remain rare.

In any event, however, neither the government nor the media should take their guidance from the likes of the insufferable Frank Rich.

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