Media salivate over GOP intraparty torture "fracas," largely silent on torture victims
Three days ago, on September 19, The Washington Post reported that the United States "secretly whisked" an innocent Canadian citizen to Syria, where he was beaten, forced to make a false confession, and "kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months."
Upon encountering such portraits of America in the 21st century, it is difficult to know whether to weep, to vomit -- or to rage against the morally bankrupt thugs whose "leadership" has done more to destroy the country we carry in our hearts than Al Qaeda could ever dream of.
Or we could react the way NBC and its sister network MSNBC did -- with near-total silence.
NBC's Today has found the time to tell us that it snowed in Utah and that "Tom Brady is one of the most eligible bachelors in the NFL," and to introduce "the grand prize winners of the annual Weight Watchers Inspiring Stories contest." But Today hasn't found the time to tell us that our government sent an innocent man off to be tortured and held in a dungeon for 10 months -- or to question how many others have met similar fates in recent years.
On Monday, September 18, NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams found time to bring viewers a story headlined "Outtakes from news story about pandas." But given three days, Nightly News couldn't find the time -- or the will -- to report what the United States did to Maher Arar.
Apparently, NBC has decided it's better to distract the American people with pictures of cuddly pandas than to tell them the truth about what their government is doing.
Things haven't been any better over at MSNBC, where Countdown host Keith Olbermann is seemingly alone in ... well, in giving a damn. Olbermann summed up the situation succinctly during his September 20 broadcast:
OLBERMANN: So, fact-check me on this, on my simplified version of this whole picture. If it's wrong, tell me so. The president wants torture, or a nice euphemism for torture, and all he'll get out of it is made-up information, revenge later against American prisoners, perhaps, and destroying any moral high ground we might still have in the world.
JACK RICE (former CIA agent): Yes, one other thing besides that. He gets to wrap himself in the flag and say he hates the bad people.
But Olbermann's is a lonely voice at MSNBC, where Arar's treatment was otherwise unmentioned, according to a search of the Nexis database.
But there's no need to single out NBC for turning a blind eye to reality.
On Thursday, September 21, David Broder, the "dean" of the Washington press corps and self-appointed guardian of civility, used his Washington Post column to suggest that an administration he describes as "lawless and reckless" is no worse than "foul-mouthed bloggers on the left."
In a column ostensibly about the "moral scale" of the debate over torture, Broder tactfully avoided any mention of his own newspaper's article about Arar. Indeed, while paying lip service to the "moral scale," Broder suggested to the reader that he is kept awake at night by the "loud" and "vituperative" statements of bloggers and Democratic congressmen -- rather than by the thought that the Bush administration's pro-torture stance not only results in inhumane treatment of those we torture, but increases the risk of our own troops facing similar treatment from foreign regimes.
While concluding that President Bush "has proved to be lawless and reckless" and "started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution," Broder explains why Bush was preferable to Al Gore and John Kerry: Their "know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself."
Fortunately, in Broder's world, there are people of honor and principle and civility to save us from the nasty bloggers and "know-it-all" Democrats: people like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Mike DeWine, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham. "These are not ordinary men," Broder tells us, putting his faith in them to stop the president from continuing behaving like a tyrant.
But these same extraordinary men have failed to do so -- again and again. These same extraordinary men have been leaders in Congress at a time when Congress has utterly abdicated its role in government, allowing the administration to be "lawless and reckless" in the first place. These same extraordinary men have stood idly by while the president used "signing statements" to signal his intention to ignore the rare law that they passed without his complete enthusiasm.
That's how McCain's last much-hyped "attempt" to put limits on the administration's torture policies ended: with an avalanche of favorable press for McCain's courageous stand against terrorism -- and a presidential signing statement indicating that Bush would continue to do whatever he damn well pleases.
Yet Broder continues to put his faith in a showman like McCain, perhaps because he is unable to stand with those darn "know-it-all[s]" on the left -- or perhaps because Democrats, too, stood by and let McCain lead the "fight."
And -- surprise -- it ended with McCain caving and declaring victory while the White House began laying the groundwork to ignore any concessions it pretended to make to McCain.
We can hardly wait for David Broder's next column extolling the "compromise" between Republicans, who want to torture people, and Republicans, who want to torture people a little less. At least it was all so very civil.
Journalist and blogger David Neiwert reminds us that the media's coverage of the Bush administration's torture policies has long been inadequate. Neiwert writes:
Much is being said about Democrats' abysmal failure in stopping the White House's plans to proceed with torturing people suspected of being terrorists, and for good reason.
But equally abysmal has been the performance of the press in making clear to the American public just what is going on here -- from the get-go. Indeed, for the most part, the press has looked the other way, burying stories that should have been atop their front pages, and treating what should have been monstrous scandals as simply politics-as-usual.
[W]hen the abuses at Abu Ghraib were revealed, the press utterly failed to examine just how far up the chain of command these abuses originated -- even though there was a trail of evidence leading right up to the top. Certainly there are indications that not just Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but also former Solicitor General Ted Olson, the White House's legal advocate, were directly involved.
What happened instead was that the press, as a general rule, looked the other way and swallowed whole the administration spin that the problem was consigned to a "few bad apples.
Read the rest here.
Perhaps the media are waiting for Democrats to mount a fight against torture. Such a case needn't be difficult to articulate. Torture is, after all, torture. And a nation that conducts it not only checks its soul at the door, it opens the members of its own armed services to the same treatment.
But that seems like it isn't going to happen any time soon. So rather than waiting for Democrats to do their job, it's time for the nation's media to start doing theirs.
The editorial boards of The New York Times and Washington Post seemed to find their voices today, as both blasted the "deal." But it isn't enough. Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin lays out the challenge for his colleagues:
Members of the traditional press were paying scant attention to the issue of state-sanctioned torture until a rift appeared within the Republican party itself. That, in Washington, qualifies as high drama.
And now that the rift has been papered over, most reporters' tendencies will be to cover the issue mostly from the angle of its effectiveness as a political cudgel in the mid-term elections.
But the American public deserves to hear a full and open debate on this important moral issue. And if Congress won't host it, then it's up to the Fourth Estate to rise to the challenge.
Read the rest here.
Today's Washington Post article on the McCain-Bush "deal" illustrates Froomkin's point perfectly: Post reporters R. Jeffrey Smith and Charles Babington treated the torture debate as an "intraparty fracas that worried GOP leaders in the run-up to the November elections."
Glaringly absent from the 1,100-plus word article is any mention of criticism of the deal. Not a single word was devoted to raising questions about it, or to including the point of view of anyone who disagreed with the policy. The Post did note at the end: "Democrats sounded a cautious note about the Republican accord, calling attention to the past Republican division rather than taking a position on the compromise."
That may be in keeping with the Post's decision to focus on "high drama" in Washington, as Froomkin described it. But it doesn't serve readers well. News organizations should present both sides of the issue, not simply both Republican sides of the issue. There are plenty of people who think the torture deal is a mistake. If Democrats won't say that, the Post should find someone who will.