Thursday, May 13, 2004

Some news organizations have relegated the beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg to a second-tier story behind repetitive accounts of Iraqi prisoner abuse.

Observers smell a rat — and an agenda to undermine the Bush administration by showcasing abuse photos and perpetuating the outrage that has accompanied it in the past two weeks.

“What’s shocking is that the beheading of an American is a one-day story. It was gone by Wednesday night. The press is trying to create more sympathy for the prisoners than Mr. Berg,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center yesterday.

“Journalists are also looking for stories which fit a template — the Vietnam quagmire template. And this prisoner-abuse story fits,” he said.

Neal Boortz, radio talk-show host, agreed.

“Nick Berg has already disappeared from many front pages, but prison abuse stories remain,” Mr. Boortz said. “Maybe it’s just this simple: The prison abuse scandal can damage George Bush, the Nick Berg story can only help him.”

The Washington Post, for example, ran two prison-abuse stories on the front page yesterday, plus three related stories elsewhere in the A-section. A single story on Mr. Berg was relegated to page A21.

The New York Times featured three prison-abuse stories on the front page, with a single story on Mr. Berg, which emphasized that “federal officials” failed to protect him. Three more prison-abuse stories ran elsewhere in the A-section.

The Times’ apparent agenda did not escape the Boston Herald, which ran an editorial yesterday accusing the paper of “using its power to mislead.”

“The New York Times, which has hawked story after story on the prison abuse scandal, saw fit [Tuesday] to run a single column on the upper-right front page about Berg’s murder, while prominently featuring accusations of abuse by a former Afghan prisoner,” the Herald said.

Some news organizations took a different tack.

The Dallas Morning News’ editorial page ran an edited photo of Mr. Berg’s assailant holding his severed head aloft, with the headline, “This is the enemy: Vile image shows the world why we should fight.”

An accompanying editorial explained that the photo “is meant to bring perspective to events in Iraq, to refocus the nation’s eyes on the larger picture of the war against radical Islam, and its stakes.”

On his ABC Radio show yesterday, Sean Hannity aired a 30-second audio clip from the beheading, telling his audience, “I know you don’t want to hear this. But you should make yourself hear it, because it is horrible and it is evil in your midst.”

One newspaper was duped by the seeming abundance of prisoner-abuse images. Yesterday, the Boston Globe ran an apology to its readers for running a photo Wednesday said to depict U.S. soldiers raping Iraqi women. The faked image had originated on an Internet pornography site.

“This photo should not have appeared in the Globe … those images were never authenticated as photos of prisoner abuse. There was a lapse in judgment and procedures, and we apologize for it,” Editor Martin Baron said.

Broadcasters remained fixated on prisoner abuse, in all its permutations.

ABC News’ Peter Jennings shaded his report Wednesday on Mr. Berg, downplaying the assailants’ links to al Qaeda and observing, “The suspected terrorist leader who’s claimed responsibility for Mr. Berg’s murder is one of the most wanted men in Iraq — at least by the United States.”

In addition, the networks overlooked a CBS-affiliate interview with Army Pfc. Lynndie England — accused of prisoner abuse — who said their tactics had actually yielded useful information.

Meanwhile, the District-based Radio-Television News Directors Association issued guidelines yesterday for “airing graphic materials,” providing nine points for broadcasters to ensure that their subjects are treated “with respect and dignity, showing particular compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. The code does not distinguish between a subject that is alive or dead.”

• Contact Jennifer Harper at or 202/636-3085.

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