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Tipping point
The horrors at Abu Ghraib have finally changed how the media report on the war — and on the president who started it

LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, the Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly was ensconced deep inside his bunker: the set of The O’Reilly Factor, which he hilariously and unironically calls the "No Spin Zone." Naturally, he was spinning like mad. It had been another miserable day for the White House, with the Washington Post publishing still more photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by American soldiers at Saddam Hussein’s Abu Ghraib prison. And O’Reilly, during his opening monologue, was telling his viewers why he would not broadcast such images.

"We will not use the pictures or the videos because we believe this inflames world opinion and puts our troops in even more jeopardy. I believe The Factor is the only national TV news program that has not run the pictures of the abuse. And I stand by that decision," O’Reilly said, adding a few moments later: "Now I say let’s provide some perspective here. Let’s stop the hysteria. Partisan politics is no excuse for over-the-top repetitive reporting. To his credit, John Kerry has not exploited the Abu Ghraib situation. Maybe the partisan media should follow their candidate’s lead."

The partisan media. That, of course, would be the same media that essentially gave George W. Bush a free pass from the moment the World Trade Center towers collapsed until that pitifully premature MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner was unfurled last May on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Since then, a few rumblings of discontent have been heard, though nothing commensurate with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction (I’ll get excited about that one bomb containing sarin gas when Bush’s hand-picked weapons inspector, David Kay, gets excited), the lack of any evidence showing ties between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda, and an ongoing insurgency that belies the notion — once devoutly embraced by neoconservatives — that the Iraqi people would be eternally grateful to us for our selfless war of liberation.

But if the media were beginning to stir, they bolted upright in bed, fully awake, on April 28. That’s when CBS’s 60 Minutes II broadcast the first photos from Abu Ghraib showing Iraqi prisoners being sexually humiliated, restrained under frightening and painful conditions, and — yes — tortured. That program was quickly followed by three pieces in the New Yorker by the legendary investigative reporter Seymour Hersh detailing the full extent of the horror. Now, for the first time in the Bush presidency, the media are fully mobilized, determined to get to the bottom of a scandal that Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, calls "the biggest tsunami since the Iran-Contra affair, maybe since Watergate."

"They [the media] have had sufficient offenses and grievances so that now they’re treating Bush as they’ve treated other presidents — roughly," says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. "Which, you could argue, is what they’re there for. The president is not supposed to have entirely restful nights. The presidency is supposed to be the roughest job in America."

The White House, not to mention O’Reilly, would love nothing better than to blame the entire prisoner-abuse scandal on the seven enlisted soldiers who photographed themselves romping around the cellblock with naked prisoners, piling them in pyramids, threatening them with electrocution, and raping them with glowsticks. Bush repeated that line in his speech at the Army War College on Monday night, singling out the "disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values." But we already know too much for that to hold up.

There was, for instance, Hersh’s revelation last week of the secret order signed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that opened the door to prisoner abuse, even though Rummy probably didn’t envision the likes of Lynndie England pulling an Iraqi around on a leash. There was the 2002 memo written by White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, and unearthed by Newsweek, urging Bush to opt out of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan, lest Bush open up himself and other top officials to possible war-crimes prosecutions. There are the reports of similar abuse in Afghanistan, and of some of the alleged abusers later being reassigned to Iraq. There is the unsettling fact that the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib apparently took place only after Major General Geoffrey Miller, who’d been in charge of the detention facility at Guantánamo, was reassigned to Iraq. Given the US position that it will adhere to the Geneva Conventions in Iraq, but not at Guantánamo or in Afghanistan, how bad do you suppose things are in those latter two outposts? No doubt we’ll find out soon enough.

"Everyone is looking for the smoking gun that Rumsfeld knew, but that’s such a legalistic way to think about it. He — actually, Bush — set the conditions. The truth is, they set the legal stage for this conduct," says counterterrorism expert Juliette Kayyem, of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

This is serious stuff, and it will likely lead to months of hearings, investigations, resignations, and prosecutions. It has already changed how the public views the war in Iraq and, by extension, the president who started it. And it suggests that the presidential campaign will be defined not by such trivia as whether Massachusetts senator John Kerry threw medals or ribbons over the fence more than 30 years ago, or if his daughter Alexandra should have worn a bra at Cannes, but by the most elemental issues of all: war and peace, life and death. And whether the incumbent president betrayed the very values to which he pays so much lip service.

At a moment like this, the news media change, transforming themselves from chroniclers into diggers. The meticulously detailed insider journalism of Bob Woodward, celebrated as recently as a month ago with the release of his latest book, Plan of Attack (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, April 30), seems almost irrelevant now. Access to power has given way to the more elemental imperative of telling truth to that power. And with Seymour Hersh beating the entire American media all by himself, you can bet that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal are gearing up to define this story in their own right.

"I think they should be asking themselves, ‘How come Sy Hersh can do this and nobody else can?’" says Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, which is also based at the Kennedy School. "I have not been impressed by anybody’s reporting except for Sy Hersh’s. It just makes Bob Woodward beside the point."

The truth is out there. Unfortunately for George W. Bush, finding it is likely to be the media’s principal obsession between now and Election Day.

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Issue Date: May 28 - June 3, 2004
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