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On Television, Torture Takes a Holiday (Frank Rich)
Read other reviews for "Torture and Truth"

By Frank Rich January 23, 2005

On the day that the defense rested in the military trial of Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, American television news had a much better story to tell: "The Trouble With Harry," as Brian Williams called it on NBC. The British prince had attended a fancy dress costume party in Wiltshire (theme: "native and colonial") wearing a uniform from Rommel's Afrika Korps complete with swastika armband. Even by the standards of this particular royal family, here was idiocy above and beyond the call of duty.
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For those of us across the pond, it was heartening to feel morally superior to a world-class twit. But if you stood back for just a second and thought about what was happening in that courtroom in Fort Hood, Tex. - a task that could be accomplished only by reading newspapers, which provided the detailed coverage network TV didn't even attempt - you had to wonder if we had any more moral sense than Britain's widely reviled "clown prince." The lad had apparently managed to reach the age of 20 in blissful ignorance about World War II. Yet here we were in America, in the midst of a war that is going on right now, choosing to look the other way rather than confront the evil committed in our name in a prison we "liberated" from Saddam Hussein in Iraq. What happened in the Fort Hood courtroom this month was surely worthy of as much attention as Harry's re-enactment of "Springtime for Hitler": it was the latest installment in our government's cover up of war crimes.

But a not-so-funny thing happened to the Graner case on its way to trial. Since the early bombshells from Abu Ghraib last year, the torture story has all but vanished from television, even as there have been continued revelations in the major newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. If a story isn't on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture.

The latest chapter unfolding in Texas during that pre-inaugural week in January was broadcast on the evening news almost exclusively in brief, mechanical summary, when it was broadcast at all. But it's not as if it lacked drama; it was "Judgment at Nuremberg" turned upside down. Specialist Graner's defense lawyer, Guy Womack, explained it this way in his closing courtroom statement: "In Nuremberg, it was the generals being prosecuted. We were going after the order-givers. Here the government is going after the order-takers." As T. R. Reid reported in The Washington Post, the trial's judge, Col. James L. Pohl of the Army, "refused to allow witnesses to discuss which officers were aware of events in cellblock One-Alpha, or what orders they had given." While Mr. Womack's client, the ringleader of the abuses seen in the Abu Ghraib photographs, deserved everything that was coming to him and then some, there have yet to be any criminal charges leveled against any of the prison's officers, let alone anyone higher up in the chain of command.

Nor are there likely to be any, given how little information about this story makes it to the truly mass commercial media and therefore to a public that, according to polls, disapproves of the prison abuses by a majority that hovers around 80 percent. What information does surface is usually so incomplete or perfunctorily presented that it leaves unchallenged the administration's line that, in President Bush's words, the story involves just "a few American troops" on the night shift.


Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr. and his lawyer, Guy Womack.

The minimizing - and in some cases outright elimination - of Abu Ghraib and its aftermath from network news coverage is in part (but only in part) political. Fox News, needless to say, has trivialized the story from the get-go, as hallmarked by Bill O'Reilly's proud refusal to run the photos of Graner & Company after they first surfaced at CBS. (This is in keeping with the agenda of the entire Murdoch empire, whose flagship American paper, The New York Post, twice ran Prince Harry's Nazi costume as a Page 1 banner while relegating Specialist Graner's conviction a day later to the bottom of Page 9.) During the presidential campaign, John Kerry barely mentioned Abu Ghraib, giving TV another reason to let snarling dogs lie. Senator John Warner's initially vigilant Congressional hearings - which threatened to elevate the craggy Virginia Republican to a TV stardom akin to Sam Ervin's during Watergate - mysteriously petered out.

Since the election, some news operations, most conspicuously NBC, have seemed eager to rally around the winner and avoid discouraging words of any kind. A database search of network transcripts finds that NBC's various news operations, in conscious or unconscious emulation of Fox, dug deeper into the Prince Harry scandal than Specialist Graner's trial. "NBC Nightly News" was frequently turned over to a journalism-free "Road to the Inauguration" tour that allowed the new anchor to pose in a series of jus'-folks settings.

But not all explanations for the torture story's downsizing have to do with ideological positioning and craven branding at the networks. The role of pictures in TV news remains paramount, and there has been no fresh visual meat from the scene of the crime (or the others like it) in eight months. The advances in the story since then, many of which involve revelations of indisputably genuine Washington memos, are not telegenic. Meanwhile, the recycling of the original Abu Ghraib snapshots, complemented by the perp walks at Fort Hood, only hammers in the erroneous notion that the story ended there, with the uncovering of a few bad apples at the bottom of the Army's barrel.

There were no cameras at Specialist Graner's trial itself. What happened in the courtroom would thus have to be explained with words - possibly more than a few sentences of words - and that doesn't cut it on commercial television. It takes a televised judicial circus in the grand O. J. Simpson tradition or a huge crew of supporting players eager (or available) for their 15 minutes of TV fame to create a mediathon. When future historians try to figure out why a punk like Scott Peterson became the monster that gobbled up a mother lode of television time in a wartime election year, their roads of inquiry will all lead to Amber Frey.

A more sub rosa deterrent to TV coverage of torture is the chilling effect of this administration's campaign against "indecency" through its proxy, Michael Powell, at the Federal Communications Commission. If stations are fearful of airing "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day, they are unlikely to go into much depth about war stories involving forced group masturbation, electric shock, rape committed with a phosphorescent stick, the burning of cigarettes in prisoners' ears, involuntary enemas and beatings that end in death. (At least 30 prisoner deaths have been under criminal investigation.) When one detainee witness at the Graner trial testified in a taped deposition that he had been forced to eat out of a toilet, that abuse was routinely cited in newspaper accounts but left unreported on network TV newscasts. It might, after all, upset viewers nearly as much as Bono's expletive at the 2003 Golden Globes.
Even so, and despite the dereliction of network news and the subterfuge of the Bush administration, the information is all there in black and white, if not in video or color, for those who want to read it, whether in the daily press or in books like Seymour Hersh's "Chain of Command" and Mark Danner's "Torture and Truth." The operative word, however, may be "want."


A chance for Americans to take the moral high road: The Prince Harry Scandal

Maybe we don't want to know that the abuses were widespread and systematic, stretching from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to unknown locales where "ghost detainees" are held. Or that they started a year before the incidents at Abu Ghraib. Or that they have been carried out by many branches of the war effort, not just Army grunts. Or that lawyers working for Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales gave these acts a legal rationale that is far more menacing to encounter in cold type than the photo of Prince Harry's costume-shop armband.

As Mr. Danner shows in his book, all this and more can be discerned from a close reading of the government's dense investigative reports and the documents that have been reluctantly released (or leaked). Read the record, and the Fort Hood charade is unmasked for what it was: the latest attempt to strictly quarantine the criminality to a few Abu Ghraib guards and, as Mr. Danner writes, to keep their actions "carefully insulated from any charge that they represent, or derived from, U.S. policy - a policy that permits torture."

The abuses may well be going on still. Even as the Graner trial unfolded, The New York Times reported that a secret August 2002 Justice Department memo authorized the use of some 20 specific interrogation practices, including "waterboarding," a form of simulated drowning that was a torture of choice for military regimes in Argentina and Uruguay in the 1970's. This revelation did not make it to network news.

"Nobody seems to be listening," Mr. Danner said last week, as he prepared to return to Iraq to continue reporting on the war for The New York Review. That so few want to listen may in part be a reflection of the country's growing disenchantment with the war as a whole. (In an inauguration-eve Washington Post-ABC News poll, only 44 percent said the war was worth fighting.) The practice of torture by Americans is not only ugly in itself. It conjures up the specter of defeat. We can't "win" the war in Iraq if we lose the battle for public opinion in the Middle East. At the gut level, Americans know that the revelations of Abu Ghraib coincided with - and very likely spurred - the ruthlessness of an insurgency that has since taken the lives of many brave United States troops who would never commit the lawless acts of a Charles Graner or seek some ruling out of Washington that might countenance them.

History tells us that in these cases a reckoning always arrives, and Mr. Danner imagines that "in five years, or maybe sooner, there will be a TV news special called 'Torture: How Did It Happen?' " Even though much of the script can be written now, we will all be sure to express great shock.

© 2017 Mark Danner