The news pack has descended on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal like coyotes on springtime roadkill.
Maybe it's because they have pictures, or perhaps it's because, despite the Pentagon's non-denial denials that seem to mutate by the moment on its web site, The New Yorker's Seymour (Sy) Hersh continues to produce more damning evidence against the higher-ups in Washington.
One thing that could be driving the coverage — aside, of course, from the very real damage the torture photos have caused to the U.S. mission in Iraq — is plain old journalistic guilt.
The truth is, the media blew this one right from the moment they started waving the flag in the sad and shocking aftermath of 9/11. Research conducted by many reputable organizations shows that disbelief was suspended, dissent was quashed, questions went unasked and, almost without exception, the media helped march the nation unto war.
Now slowly, slowly, the big media guns are starting to point in new directions. Last week, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman wrote about how President George W. Bush botched Iraq while CNN's Tucker Carlson, who defends the war much less enthusiastically nowadays on Crossfire, childishly confessed that the war has been "a total nightmare and disaster, and I'm ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it. It's something I'll never do again. Never. I got convinced by a friend of mine who's smarter than I am, and I shouldn't have done that."
Probably the best open-your-eyes-and-say-whaa?? moment came last Wednesday when PBS anchor Jim Lehrer got into an exchange with Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball over how the media failed to offer critical analysis in the run-up to the war. This from the show's transcripts:
Matthews: Do you think journalism, by the objective standards we have in this country, in the early part of the 21st Century, should have included that kind of analysis?
Lehrer: I do. The word occupation, keep in mind, Chris, was never mentioned in the run-up to the war. It was liberation. This was a war of liberation, not a war of occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.
Lehrer: Because it just didn't occur to us. We weren't smart enough to do it. I agree. I think it was a dereliction of our — in retrospective.
Matthews: Do you think the press bought the cakewalk?
Lehrer: Well, I think everybody bought the cakewalk. We were all there together.
Well, uh, no.
Not everybody "bought the cakewalk." It's just that those who didn't, including former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, were demonized or all but excluded from the airwaves.
As for not looking at "the issue of occupation," few journalists even looked at the concept of an American exit strategy, let alone hanging around while troops were being picked off and billions more were spent.
I did a quick Dow Jones database search on "exit strategy" for the first three months of last year and came up with 316 references — the vast majority of them referring to Saddam's exit strategy for avoiding war and/or being killed or captured.
Not very scientific, of course. But it indicates that, while the media cheered U.S. troops going in, few thought about getting them out. Now that the Democrats are piling on to the occupation mess, the media are jumping into the fray.
Gauging a change in journalistic attitude is hard to do without content analyses beyond the scope of a daily newspaper.
That said, it's impossible not to sense a sea change in U.S. political news coverage. One can only wonder what the White House spinmeisters have in the works to turn that negative tide.
© Copyright 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.