Rich

“Torture Takes A Holiday”

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.

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.

The eternal catch-22 of political television: It doesn’t make the 24-hour cable news cycle until the public is outraged, but without wall-to-wall coverage, nothing captures the public imagination anymore. And so the public has an excuse to be underinformed, and the attack poodles have an excuse to continue underinforming the public.

How do we break something out of that iron-clad circle of irrelevance? Because that, more than liberal TV channels or more books or talk shows, that’s what we need to learn how to do. How do we make what we want to talk about the Laci Peterson type of story?

A.