- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2004

Much of the press corps continued vigorous criticism of the Bush administration yesterday, even after President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials came forward with multiple, sincere and very public mea culpas.

Apologies and assurances that the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners would be thoroughly investigated did little to fend off dire but presumptuous predictions in print and broadcast that White House policy was failing and that Mr. Rumsfeld should resign forthwith. Attacks on him were increasingly personal.

After his appearance before a Senate committee yesterday, one NBC correspondent called Mr. Rumsfeld “disingenuous,” while anchor Brian Williams noted that the hearings would ultimately have a “sweeping effect on the Pentagon.”

“Donald Rumsfeld Should Go,” noted a New York Times editorial yesterday, characterizing him as a man of “almost willful blindness.” But the Times also went after someone farther down in the military command.

A news story by James Dao — rather than an opinion piece — characterized the photographic image of U.S. Army Pvt. Lynndie England as a “symbol of abuse.” The soldier had appeared in two of the leaked prisoner photos. A separate family snapshot of Pvt. England, the Times story noted, was removed from a public wall of honor at a court house in her West Virginia hometown.

Still photographs rather than video footage have driven the story since its onset last week, offering an equal playing field to both broadcast and print media. But the origins of the photos and the timing of their release in the New Yorker, on CBS News and in The Washington Post and the New York Times remains a mystery, though one Pentagon official said during yesterday’s hearings that the news media have “been after” the photos since January.

None of the news organizations have revealed theirs source of the images, only that they were digital and on computer disks. The New York Times, for example, simply referred to its source as “the people who provided them [the photos] to the New York Times.”

Other newspapers directly called for the resignation or firing of Mr. Rumsfeld, including the Boston Globe, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which also called for Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to leave his post.

“Are you ready, now, to think the unthinkable?” asked Editor and Publisher columnist Greg Mitchell in a challenge to the news media to up the opinion ante yesterday.

“Who will be the first in line to call for a phased withdrawal, not more troops? As with Vietnam, one brave voice (remember Walter Cronkite on Feb. 27, 1968) may inspire others,” Mr. Mitchell wrote.

“This is alarming, unsettling coverage,” Warren Watson of the American Press Institute said yesterday. “And it’s very important for readers and viewers to separate opinion pieces from responsible news coverage. It is not always easy to tell the difference.”

For the most part, Mr. Watson deemed the coverage “responsible” and “treated with appropriate gravity.”

He continued, “The role of newspapers and other news media is to shine light on a situation like this.”

Still, broadcasters in particular framed an unfolding situation as a virtual failure of the entire Bush administration. On Thursday, NBC called the prisoner abuse “a full blown crisis” while CBS billed it as a “foreign policy disaster.”

All cable news channels covered the hearings. CBS, NBC and ABC broke into normal daytime programming at 11:45 a.m. and stayed with them until 2:30 p.m., though ABC returned to its afternoon soap operas at approximately 2 p.m.

Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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