Reports of a U.S. “death squad” in Afghanistan, complete with the publication of gory photographs, have failed to attract the intense political or media attention afforded a previous war scandal — the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
In 2004, CBS News broadcast an array of photographs showing American jail guards abusing Iraqi detainees. The most famous: a forced pyramid of naked, humiliated prisoners. The depictions touched off an avalanche of media coverage. In Congress, liberals called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Democrats launched inquiries and held a string of well-covered hearings.
In recent months, another wartime embarrassment has emerged. The Army charged five soldiers with murder in the deaths of Afghan civilians in what amounted to a “death squad.” The German magazine Der Spiegel published several digital photos of soldiers posing with the dead last month.
Yet the U.S. media have given relatively little coverage, and no one in Congress has called for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to quit, planned hearings or raised questions at budget hearings.
Conservatives, while not seeking negative coverage of the armed forces, say it is another example of a blatant double standard. The reason the mainstream media have barely touched the story, conservatives say, is because it happened under President Obama, not George W. Bush.
“I think any assignment editor would think a story about soldiers murdering people is a bigger story than soldiers putting prisoners in a naked pyramid,” said Tim Graham, an analyst at the Media Research Center, which seeks to expose what it says is liberal press bias. “When you reverse those, what you’re seeing is political opportunism.”
Mr. Graham offered an example. Time magazine, which devoted much coverage to Abu Ghraib and the killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha during the Bush presidency, had a “tiny paragraph in the front of the magazine” a few issues ago on the death squad photos, he said.
“If you put Abu Ghraib in the Time magazine search engine, you get 17 pages of results,” Mr. Graham said. “When Abu Ghraib happened, the news media operated under the assumption that it came from the top. All the coverage came with the assumption that the president or the defense secretary ordered it. And if they didn’t, they had to deny and prove that they didn’t. In this case, there is no assumption the president would know or approve.”
Even someone at Time is struck by the lack of “death squad” coverage overall.
Jim Frederick, who covered the Iraq War and is now the managing editor of Time.com and the magazine’s executive editor, wrote in a March 29 blog that the Afghan story was remarkable for two reasons, the first of which is the depravity of the crimes.
“The second reason this tale has been remarkable: It has garnered little attention from the media or the public, even though the allegations started leaking last May and Spc. Jeremy Morlock, one of the five soldiers accused of murder, pled guilty last week and was sentenced to 24 years in prison in exchange for his cooperation in the trials yet to come,” Mr. Frederick wrote.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was the top military spokesman in Iraq when the prison scandal story broke.
“During the Abu Ghraib investigations, many of the media questions appeared to originate from a presumption that the criminal actions of a few soldiers were part of a broader U.S. policy to promote torture,” Gen. Kimmitt told The Washington Times.
“Today, reports of criminal activities by soldiers are more fairly characterized as idiosyncratic events emanating from poor leadership and criminal behavior, rather than encouraged and sanctioned by government policy.”
Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, at a news conference quickly accused Marines of murder in Haditha before all the facts were released. Democrats have made no such accusations this time, and Republicans have not sought to make political hay from the “death squad” story.