- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Nonstop news coverage of Iraqi prisoner abuse has yet to become sensational, some insist. But they agree it ultimately could exact a toll on the U.S. military.

“Yes, it must sadden our troops to see these accounts, it must make them angry. Maybe it does expose them to greater danger,” said ABC’s Ted Koppel.

But press freedom “is part of what they’re fighting for. Our forefathers wanted an informed electorate,” Mr. Koppel said.

What constitutes appropriate coverage has been thrown into stark relief this week. TV networks have aired frequent images of the abuse, but used edited video footage of the beheading of American contractor Nick Berg, citing decency standards.

Some critics felt it showed political bias against the war in Iraq or that the press was too eager to showcase Democratic “outrage” over the abuse. At least one Middle Eastern news group accused Western media of airing the video of Mr. Berg as “propaganda” to distract world attention from the abuse story.

Mr. Koppel said he does not believe the press has overworked the abuse story.

“If photos are available in the age of 24/7 cable television, they’ll be shown so much viewers may feel like the images are being hyped. But turn it around. Supposing the photos were absent and we simply heard an account? Would it have been the same story?” Mr. Koppel asked. “We can’t separate the coverage from the technology these days.”

He added, “The important thing is that no one denied the photos, or questioned them as fakes.”

Yet, photos are fallible. Yesterday, the Boston Globe was duped by a local council member into publishing images, acquired from the Nation of Islam, of what appeared to be U.S. soldiers in sexual situations. But the photos already had been shown on World Net Daily to be fakes from a pornographic Web site.

Seymour Topping, former managing editor of the New York Times and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, praised print coverage of the abuse, calling it “balanced and penetrating.”

“But newspapers are not infallible. Sometimes they overplay a story, sometimes they underplay it. A quality paper seeks a proper balance between the two,” Mr. Topping said.

“I don’t think the coverage has been inappropriate. People in the military themselves are outraged. It is already a sensational story because it’s so patently offensive,” said Tobias Naegele, editor in chief of the Military Times, which publishes the Army Times and other newspapers.

“The danger in disclosing prisoner images is that it makes people in Iraq and elsewhere angrier at the U.S., which in turn can endanger our troops. The images can’t help but raise the level of anger among those predisposed to be angry,” Mr. Naegele said.

“Polling data might say these images have damaged public support for the war,” Mr. Naegele said. “And I am sure they are damaging to military morale as well.”

Heavy coverage continues, though details are missing, Mr. Naegele said, drawing some parallels between abuse coverage and press treatment of the 1991 “Tailhook” scandal, involving accusations that U.S. Navy pilots were involved in sexual harassment in Las Vegas.

“History tells us that government officials sometimes withhold facts. You want the media there to scratch below the surface,” he said.

Robert Steele, ethics fellow at the Florida-based Poynter Institute, called the abuse coverage “measured, thoughtful and substantiative.”

But he cautioned, “Editors need to make sure they use the images in context, not merely as the ‘great’ picture element. They should be used if they provide factual, authentic pieces of a larger puzzle.”

The press can withhold a sensitive story for “a short time” if they think it could compromise American security, he said.

“As journalists, we can’t ignore the consequences of our reporting, but we should not be abdicating our journalistic independence either,” Mr. Steele said.

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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