Selective Press Squeamishness

Deborah Orin argues that the press’ reluctance to show or even describe the agony of the victims of our enemies plays into their hands.

After terrorists beheaded Korean hostage Kim Sun-il, The New York Times kept the photo showing the horror of his final moments off yesterday’s front page. Instead, the Times’ front page bizarrely describes Kim as “sitting or kneeling quietly” as he waited to die — in reality the photo, back on Page A-11, shows Kim with his mouth open wide in terror, and the video shows him shaking with fear.
It’s just the latest instance of how the press often hesitates to show the true savagery of America’s enemies in the War on Terror, whether al Qaeda or Saddam Hussein’s thugs, precisely because the images are so awful. Last week, The Post revealed that reporters were ignoring a gruesome video of torture by Saddam’s thugs while obsessing over prisoner mistreatment by a small group of U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib jail where the photos are less upsetting.

Calls from readers prompted the American Enterprise Institute to post the Saddam torture video on its Web site (with warnings about the graphic content). Fox News Channel’s “Hannity and Colmes” did a report — in fact, last fall Fox exclusively revealed the existence of Saddam torture videos and aired sections.
National Review Online ran a detailed account of the video. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough plans to air it tonight. Otherwise, silence.


That prompted Laura Daniel to write New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent to complain, to no avail. “I don’t think the NYT needs to cover the video — but I do think it should make periodic mention of Saddam’s torture — which, in fact, I believe it has, and does,” Okrent emailed back. “That’s intellectually dishonest, and he knows it,” retorts Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who co-hosted an airing of the Saddam torture video on Capitol Hill with Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.). “There’s no question if we had pictures of American soldiers chopping off hands, they would air it. It’s just a double standard . . . The idea that if you mention [Saddam’s torture] you have somehow checked your box of being fair is ridiculous,” he adds. By contrast he points to “front-page, eye-catching, big headlines that say, ‘America bad, America fails.’ What is the overall message that’s getting out? It’s not what’s mentioned in paragraph 13 — ‘Oh, by the way, Saddam was bad, too.’ ”

I understand the press’ reluctance to air video of people being beheaded. Frankly, that’s not something most Americans want delivered to their living rooms. (As opposed to their computer monitors, apparently.) Still, the obsessive coverage of American abuses in Iraq–with daily front page reports of every single document saying essentially the same thing–with simultaneous downplaying of the atrocities of our enemies is a huge propaganda coup for the other side.

I don’t argue that the mainstream press is doing it for that reason. In addition to genuine sensitivity issues–although, certainly, the press is extremely selective in caring about the impact of their reportage on victims’ families–there is something of a “man bites dog” element to the editorial judgment. We don’t report planes that land safely, cars that don’t crash, or buildings not on fire. Islamist terrorists acting brutally isn’t “news” in the same way as American soldiers acting badly. But the emphasis on the unusual, in this case as in general, distorts the public’s perceptions of reality. When we’re fighting a war and that distortion helps the enemy, it’s particularly unfortunate.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Richard Arnone says:

    We need to stop speaking so delicately and call the actions of the press exactly what they are. They are engaged in a massive effort to un-seat Bush. Following Goebbels advice, they are repeating their lies over and over, even after they have been exposed. This is not news, it’s dis-information aimed at the hundreds of thousands who are unsophisticated voters. There should be an investigation to see if some of Soros’ millions is finding its way to the media moguls.