CBS Held Story
CBS News delayed reporting for two weeks about U.S. soldiers’ alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, following a personal request from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
Gen. Richard B. Myers called CBS anchor Dan Rather eight days before the report was to air, asking for extra time, said Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes II.”
Myers cited the safety of American hostages and tension surrounding the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Fager said, adding that he held off as long as he believed possible given it was a competitive story.
With The New Yorker magazine preparing to run a detailed report on the alleged abuses, CBS finally broadcast its report last Wednesday, including images taken last year allegedly showing Iraqis stripped naked, hooded and being tormented by U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
Fager said he felt “terrible” being asked to delay the broadcast.
“News is a delicate thing,” he said. “It’s hard to just make those kinds of decisions. It’s not natural for us; the natural thing is to put it on the air. But the circumstances were quite unusual and I think you have to consider that.”
Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said there should be an “exceptional principle and argument” to justify withholding news of such magnitude.
“You’d have to be convinced that these other American lives are truly on the line,” he said. “I would want to have a very specific and short time period (to withhold the news). If CBS believes it was justified, to hold back two weeks seems like an awful long time. Perhaps a day or two. But two weeks is a long time, particularly with the nature of the allegations in the video.”
I think the argument for holding the story was pretty compelling. By the time CBS got the story, the incident was months old and the perpetrators had already been arrested and reassigned. While there was never going to be a good time to release something like this, the early stages of the Falluja uprising was particularly sensitive. I applaud CBS and Rather for putting lives ahead of their desire for a scoop on this one.