U.S. Media Favoring Scary Side of Guantanamo Detainees Instead of American Screw-Ups


Front and center in today’s edition of the New York Times is an article entitled “In Dossier, Portrait of Push for Post-9/11 Attacks,” a piece that uses this week’s WikiLeaks document dump about detainees held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay to tell of terrorist plans never carried out. The article is one of many Guantanamo angles so far this week, not only from the Times, but other domestic news organizations like the Washington Post and NPR, along with international outlets like Britain’s Telegraph and Guardian, which are culling the raw classified documents and repackaging them as news stories. But are American outlets being more deferential to the U.S. government than their international counterparts by highlighting the danger of the detainees instead of the well-documented innocents held uncharged, the abuses they suffered and the flawed system of interrogation? Let’s explore in Press Clips, our daily media column. Plus: the Village Voice has a new Metro columnist!

National Bias: Yesterday we touched on the difference in coverage right out of the gate when reports started popping up Sunday night.

“The Guardian emphasizes exactly what is most important about these documents: how oppressive is this American detention system, how unreliable the evidence is on which the accusations are based, and how so many people were put in cages for years without any justification,” wrote Glenn Greenwald at Salon. The Telegraph, too, highlighted right away “more than 150 innocent people held at the U.S. prison.” The Times‘ initial report, meanwhile, teased of “New Insights Into Detainees” and the Post was worse, with “Documents reveal al-Qaeda’s post-9/11 moves,” getting the entire top section.

Today, the front page of the Times (pictured above) followed with something similar to yesterday’s Post story about how terrifying the detainees are. The article tells of plots, “none of them acted upon,” which “included plans for a new wave of aircraft attacks on the West Coast, filling an apartment with leaked natural gas and detonating it, blowing up gas stations and even cutting the cables holding up the Brooklyn Bridge.” Scary stuff to be sure, but lower in the piece is the disclosure that assessments “draw heavily on statements” by prisoners like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, “who was subjected to waterboarding and other brutal treatment during his interrogation by the C.I.A.”

A column from the Guardian by Michael Tomasky today calls the NYT article “a journalistic fishing expedition, to my reading, to wring more drama out of this,” in that it “[c]onjures a series of horrific images in the mind. But if you really read the piece, you don’t get the sense that these suspects came especially close to doing any more damage.” He writes:

I take terrorism very seriously. But I take real threats of terrorism very seriously. I have been convinced this last – my goodness, it’s nearly a decade now? – that we as a culture in America have far more often made the opposite error: quaking at the thought of every half-baked notion, elevating it to the level of “plot,” living in a state of willed fear.

All of which is not to say the New York Times is hiding the torture (though they’ve notoriously avoided using that word) that took place or innocent detainees completely. “Flawed Evidence for Assessing Risk,” as we noted yesterday, was printed on page 1 and includes paragraphs like these:

Viewed with judges’ rulings on legal challenges by detainees, the documents reveal that the analysts sometimes ignored serious flaws in the evidence — for example, that the information came from other detainees whose mental illness made them unreliable. Some assessments quote witnesses who say they saw a detainee at a camp run by Al Qaeda but omit the witnesses’ record of falsehood or misidentification. They include detainees’ admissions without acknowledging other government documents that show the statements were later withdrawn, often attributed to abusive treatment or torture.

Guantánamo emerges from the documents as a nest of informants, a closed world where detainees were the main source of allegations against one another and sudden recollections of having spotted a fellow prisoner at a Qaeda training camp could curry favor with interrogators. The assessments of many detainees amount to long lists of fellow prisoners’ claims about them.

But there’s no arguing that placement doesn’t matter and while the Times and Post lead with information some might see as fear-mongering and easy on the U.S., the Guardian has reports up top about how “a single star informer at the base won his freedom by incriminating at least 123 other prisoners there,” in addition to “clashing” U.S. interrogators, and Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora escape. The order of the Times‘ stories on their Guantanamo page appear unchanged since yesterday, and “New Insights” still leads.

Leading on the Telegraph‘s website: “WikiLeaks: eight Guantanamo Bay inmates incriminated 225 others.” Examples like that, from where we’re sitting, make it look indeed like a “patriotic media.”

Internal Memo: Harry Siegel, formerly the editor-in-chief of the New York Press and a writer at Politico and the New York Sun, will be the new Metro columnist for this here Village Voice. Look for his byline here on Runnin’ Scared as well!

More Hires: Elsewhere in employment, Arianna Huffington and her AOL/HuffPo hybrid are looking to bring on 8,000 bloggers in eight days for their hyperlocal Patch sites. Think of the talent they’ll find! (None will be paid.) Energy reporter Tom Zeller will also be joining Huffington, but presumably he’ll get a paycheck because he’s coming from the New York Times, also known as Arianna’s poaching pool.

At another journalistic institution throwing around big money for big names, Bloomberg View, the forthcoming opinion arm of our billionaire mayor’s media empire, grabbed Michael Kinsey, pundit extraordinaire, for a salary rumored to be closer to $1 million than $100,000.

J-School, Free: New York University professor Jay Rosen boiled down the future of journalism into a listicle to celebrate his 25th anniversary schooling future debtors:

1. The more people who participate in the press the stronger it will be.

2. The profession of journalism went awry when it began to adopt the View from Nowhere.

3. The news system will improve when it is made more useful to people.

4. Making facts public does not a public make; information alone will not inform us.

Yes, it’s true, you have no attention span left because… The Internet, but he fleshes out the rest here.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 26, 2011

Archive Highlights