May 11, 2004
By Martin Fishgold and David Swanson
U.S. soldiers and CIA contract professionals, with the knowledge and encouragement of their superiors, committed war crimes against Iraqi prisoners that are all too clear in the graphic images that Dan Rather and CBS executives chose to suppress for two weeks at the request of the Pentagon. There was no justification for this delay or for the argument, as made by the reactionary columnist William Safire in the May 10th New York Times, that the delay was needed to save the lives of American soldiers. If it weren’t for Seymour Hersh and The New Yorker’s plans to publish the story, Rather might still be sitting on this news, denying the public the knowledge we need to participate in our democracy, and doing so simply because the Chairman of Bush’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, asked him to.
Our government is currently in possession of additional photos, and our journalists are not doing enough to demand that they be made public. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told Congress that releasing them would make things worse. But worse for whom? Surely not for the vitality of our democracy in which people cannot make informed decisions unless they themselves are informed.
U.S. media outlets engage in self-censorship frequently. We’ve seen very little reporting on Halliburton’s mistreatment of Indian workers in Iraq, and next to nothing on the deaths of Iraqi civilians, for example. Even reporting on the deaths of American soldiers is controversial. But Dan Rather’s willingness to be censored by the government, and the lack of outrage from other media outlets, takes us to a new low.
The fact that CBS would delay an important story at the request of the government speaks volumes about the shortcomings of our corporate media. Even more telling is the general failure of other media outlets to report on this outrageous behavior by CBS. Many U.S. newspapers have reported that Myers told Congress he asked Rather for a two-week delay, but have not reported the fact that Rather complied. Most readers are likely to assume from these accounts that the delay was not granted. And, of course, these same reports fail to mention that according to Rather the request was simply for a delay, which was not originally set to last two weeks, but which was cut short by another media outlet’s threatening to scoop CBS.
The media of our democracy has not only delayed our access to this news but also spun it in the Pentagon’s favor. “There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist,” Rumsfeld told Congress last week. “If these are released to the public, obviously it’s going to make matters worse. That’s just a fact.” Rumsfeld is asking the media to move torture of prisoners into the great realm of the acceptable but tasteless. He is asking the media to assume along with him that he knows better than the rest of us what should be kept from us for our own good. Torture, if it were up to Rumsfeld, would be — like civilian deaths in war — something the media should assume we’re aware of but not have the poor taste to actually inform us about. Our media seems far too ready to comply.
This is how Rather openly announced his subservience to the Bush Administration, concluding a segment on “60 Minutes II”: “Two weeks ago, we received an appeal from the Defense Department, and eventually from the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, to delay this broadcast given the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq. We decided to honor that request while pressing for the Defense Department to add its perspective to the incidents at Abu Ghraib Prison. This week, with the photos beginning to circulate elsewhere and with other journalists about to publish their versions of the story, the Defense Department agreed to cooperate in our report.”
On September 17, 2001, Rather told David Letterman: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions….Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call.” Rather meant what he said. He has lost the last shred of credibility as an independent journalist and should simply be placed on the White House payroll.
Martin Fishgold is President of the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA). David Swanson is Media Coordinator of the ILCA. http://ILCAonline.org