May 17, 2005

Massacres and Media

In Abu Ghraib, the US (prior to the public knowledge of the abuses) admitted wrongdoing and proceeded to begin prosecutions related to the torture and a homicide that had occured in that instance. The media covered it incessantly and continue to use it as a way to indict virtually anything Republicans and Americans do.

Several thousand Vietnamese were killed in Hue by the NVA and VC during the Tet Offensive. Few if any were combatants and yet they were all killed anyway - some of them were on the Communists' lists for nothing more than being Catholic or college students. Overall a few thousand were found but maybe twice that number were killed overall. The media at the time barely covered this war crime, even though they found plenty of time to cover the brief few days of US pullbacks during the war.

So how is it that the conscience of the media is such that it can be worse than Jane Fonda for the massacre at Hue, but then become a Jiminy Cricket from Hell when it comes to Abu Ghraib. I realize there is a severe time period change in there, but I have two responses: a) a lot of the media and Democrats in general seem to draw a great deal of indentification from the Vietnam-Watergate era, including their view of Republican-Democratic relations, so it's not an entirely inappropriate reference, and b) if the time period bugs you then let's move to a new comparison.

Everyone points out that the media covered Abu Ghraib like crazy but then didn't really cover the execution of Berg. This is an apt comparison. How about the myriad crimes of Saddam Hussein - much of which was caught on tape. In fact, there are pictures of Abu Ghraib abuses, but there's actual video of the stuff Saddam's police agencies did - including throwing people off buildings - and Bick Berg's vicious murder also had video. Video trumps stills.

Now I've watched enough media reports to know that video, especially popular movies but generally any video, gets played for the lightest of reasons. I saw a clip of Trinity and the keymaster jumping onto a truck from the Matrix in an NBC story on the base closings Pentagon report because one of the bases had been used in that movie's production. I've seen worse (and better) excuses to show video clips. Sometimes they just show random shots of unrelated places with the flimsiest of connections. They want to show you video because it's not radio; they need to give you something to look at while you listen.

So why is it that in segments about Saddam we don't see the video of the secret police's criminal exploits? Why was it that the NVA/VC execution of thousands of non-combatants got virtually no coverage in 1968 but the spot execution of one combatant by a US officer got outstanding levels of coverage? Is it just the pictures available? I wouldn't think that could be the full explanation, because again, there's video of Nick Berg, there's video of what Saddam's thugs did, etc.

It's certainly not the tired appeals of nativism that Americans are only interested in stories about America. I think there'd be plenty of interest in hearing about horrible stuff done by our enemies. In fact, one of the single most famous stories of the early twentieth Century - the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Young Turks - sold huge amounts of magazines and newspapers in the US. So you can't tell me that Americans would rather hear about horrible things Americans do than the horrible things our enemies do; I'd imagine the opposite would be far more accurate.

Aside from various factors like randomness, luck, concidence and so forth, I think it's two reasons: 1) the oppositional spirit that journalists like to affect for themselves, wherein they're the scrappy reporters fighting the monoliths of traditional wisdom and entrenched interests (hence they have an enhanced interest in exposing US crimes and a diminished interest in proving the US government right about our enemies) and 2) the heightened access of US-controlled areas. Since freedom of movement and the press is far greater than other places, Americans find it much easier to cover our own follies rather than our opponents. This is contrary to history, but it's important. It serves as a check against our government.

Unfortunately, many media outlets are not compensating by striving to cover the crimes of foreign leaders. The result is that our media don't cover North Korean, Cuban or Iraqi crimes - on balance all far worse than anything done by this country this century or the last - and it makes us look like the bad guys simply because we air our laundry where others don't.

Of course, it always has to come down to bias. Fox News and the NY Post and so forth cover Saddam's crimes because of their biases. CNN and the NY Times don't really cover them because of their biases. Whatever other factors are involved, it has to be simple bias in the end, because the media outlets have the resources to report other stories, they simply don't look for them or don't report on them.

I remember when NATO was bombing Serbia and was forced by the media to apologize for every mistaken bomb and misguided attack - even though all reasonable people conceded they were accidents. Meanwhile, the enemy had troops destroying houses, burning villages, raping women and committing ethnic cleansing.

We should continue to hold US and Western governments and citizens accountable, but not at the expense of context. For example: Abu Ghraib was tragic and criminal, one of the worst impulses of humanity and a dangerous symbol to the Arab world, but the offenders were caught and punished by the Army itself, before media scrutiny, and they were granted rights that they had denied others such as punishment prescribed by law after due process. But in context, the US was eliminating a regime that committed countless similar crimes and worse, without punishment and with explicit encouragement from Saddam's regime.

Abu Ghraib abuse took one life in contravention of law and accepted custom. Saddam's men took hundreds of thousands of lives by explicit order of all their superiors and as the mandatory custom of Ba'athist policing. Both are bad, but it takes context to understand that not all regimes are equally bad - context that is truly lacking in most media outlets.


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