Though the whole world was talking about the torture of Iraqi prisoners, the New York Post kept the story off its front page for 10 days. Finally on Saturday, the hacky-tacky tab relented. It was either go with the flow or get beaten by the Daily News, which had run numerous covers on the scandal. Forced to choose between patriotism and being punk’d, even Rupert’s minions will report the truth.
Springtime for Murdoch this is not. But for journalists who have felt flash frozen by the government’s war on information, the pollen is blowing at last. Torturegate is an inexorable inducement to reportorial enterprise. Who will find the images that have been withheld? Where else have these atrocities occurred? What did the president know and when did he know it? That last question hasn’t been asked since Deep Throat’s glory days.
For the first time in a generation, the press has produced a major political scandal without helpful leaks from Republican operatives. All it took was a soldier’s father determined to protect his son from being scapegoated. He initiated the process that provided 60 Minutes 2 with the smoking photos. Then came Seymour M. Hersh’s blistering account in The New Yorker, with details from a secret military report on prisoner torture that dates from February. Hersh reported that military intelligence had authorized these tactics in order to “set favorable conditions for subsequent interviews.”
Meanwhile, the Red Cross revealed that it had warned the administration about its prison practices a year ago, and Human Rights Watch produced a packet of torture stories dating back to a Washington Post piece in December of 2002. Nothing much had come of these dispatches, so why did the recent round of revelations kick ass? Because they involved images that couldn’t be dismissed. No one could accuse the liberal media of trumping up a scandal. The photos said it all.
We’re reminded yet again that news needs the camera’s imprimatur—and that, in the age of digital ubiquity, images are harder to control than words. In this case, the reporting was notably restrained because the eyes conveyed the meaning. To paraphrase Jim Morrison in one of his more postmodern moments: “Show us the pictures of the pain.”
Bob Woodward didn’t articulate a point of view in his new book about George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. This has fueled a backlash against Woodward from the likes of Eric Alterman and Christopher Hitchens. In a sense, they’re right. A reporter who refrains from interpretation promotes a suspension of judgment in the reader, and what does that mean when you’re talking about warfare—or torture?
Still, great investigative reporting can provide the fodder for great commentary. So the real question is: Where are the writers who will ask truly salient questions about the current scandal? Is there a relationship between the nightly dose of schadenfreude on reality TV and the ability to inflict pain with a smile? Are we being conditioned to accept casual brutality-against prisoners in America, not to mention the homeless-as long as it’s kept out of sight? Do I sound like a goo-goo liberal? If so, that’s the problem, not a reporter’s studied neutrality.
The first step in the solution is for liberal commentators to rediscover their passion. This means overcoming the chronic depression that goes with thinking no one will pay attention to your critique. Right-wing wags have no such compunctions; they roar like the MGM lion. So they did last week, led by Rush Limbaugh’s dismissal of the events at Abu Ghraib as a frat prank gone awry. Others joined the rush to judge these crimes as the work of what one Wall Street Journal op-eder called “a few miscreants.” (Gee, I thought they believed all too well.) But among other things, Torturegate proves that conservatives can’t suppress a major story by dominating talk radio, cable TV, and the tabloid market. Not yet, anyway.
Maybe we don’t have to spend millions on alternative chat shows in order to make a point. What we really need are pictures of the pain.
One day, I awoke from a night of troubled dreams to discover that I had become a press critic. Fortunately, the metamorphosis is temporary. At the editor’s bidding, I’m filling in until Cynthia Cotts returns from her leave. I don’t claim to be a “real” media writer—but I read, watch, and think. You can share your gleanings with me at email@example.com.
Research assistance: Matthew Phillp