Corporate Spin on Torture of Iraqi Prisoners by US Soldiers

By Gloves Off Co-Editor Joe Smith

Photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured by US soldiers (including smiling male and female soldiers posing for pictures next to prisoners being sexually humiliated) were broadcast yesterday by CBS.  The pictures were apparently taken last fall in Abu Graib prison.  If you have not had the chance to see them Rahul Mahajan has placed the photographs on his weblog.

It has caused acute embarassment for Tony Blair who just last week was taking a high public profile in support of the assault on Falluja.  The British government is doing a very careful dance between condemnation and reaffirmation of its support.  The Guardian is the only newspaper I came across that asks whether the abuses are accidental.  It quotes Amnesty International, which says that such incidents occur with alarming frequency, suggesting that the abuses are systematic and not isolated.  The group notes that reports of other incidents involving torture of prisoners have gone uninvestigated by the coalition.

So what about coverage in the American press?  A cursory glance at the morning papers demonstrates that the "real" story is not the acts of torture themselves.  This is true in two senses.  First, the story receiving the most attention today is the pullback from Falluja.  If the torture story is picked up at all -- today's NY Times carries no mention of the story -- it is relegated to the back pages.  For instance the Washington Post, which thoughtfully announces where in the newspaper its website stories appear, has the article slotted on page A24.  Other news outlest simply have their reports off a minor link away from the Falluja headlines.  And second, the "real" story is not so much the actions of US soldiers but the high profile US actions are getting in the foreign, mainly Arab, presses.
The LA Times offers a good example of this spin strategy.  It is running the story with a low profile (a minor link well down the page) and with a headline obviously designed to raise questions about the motivations and intentions of the international press.  Their story is entitled "Arab Stations Show Iraqi Prisoner Images."  MSNBC takes a similar line on the news with "Arab TV Shows GIs Humiliating Iraqi Detainees."  They add to the spin by referring to the pictures as "images which document alleged abuses" and contrast that measured reading with "one main [Arab] channel saying the pictures were evidence of the “immoral practices” of American forces."  The contrast suggests the Arab presses are being inflammatory whereas MSNBC is taking a clear-headed objective stance.

The Washington Post gives the most detailed attention to the acts of torture and is the only news outlines that describes them at some length.  Because of this it is worth quoting at length:
"According to sealed charging papers that were provided to The Washington Post, soldiers forced prisoners to lie in "a pyramid of naked detainees" and jumped on their prone bodies, while other detainees were ordered to strip and perform or simulate sex acts. In one case, a hooded man allegedly was made to stand on a box of MREs, or meals ready to eat, and told that he would be electrocuted if he fell off. In another example, the papers allege, a soldier unzipped a body bag and took snapshots of a detainee's frozen corpse inside. Several times, soldiers were photographed and videotaped posing in front of humiliated inmates, according to the charges. One gave a thumbs-up sign in front of the human pyramid. The documents add to growing accusations of improper prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib..."
As commendable as this detailed description may be, the Washington Post still buries the story on page A24 and displaces the focus of the story with the accompanying headline "Allegations of Abuse lead to Shakeup at Iraqi Prison."  The real story is that as horrifying as the acts of torture may have been, the problem is administrative in nature and is being dealt with.  There is no evidence that such abuses are systematic, only the recognition that there have been other complaints.  The Washington Post further distinguishes itself as an agent of spin for the state by keeping all sources for the story as coming from either the military, the lawyers involved in the case or the immediate families of the accused soldiers.  Torture is apparently an in-house affairs where the military is assumed to be capable of self-policing.

CNN appears to be one of the few major news outlets carrying a headline that implies significance in the acts of torture themselves.  "Military spokesman 'disgusted' by prison photos" highlights the public statements made by Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition's deputy chief of operations, who notes that 6 soldiers have been arrested in connection with the torture photos.  The article also gives a high profile about how the story is being run widely in the international press.  An accompanying photograph shows British tabloids carrying the photo of a hooded prisoner standing with a noose around his neck and electrical wires attached to both hands.  The second paragraph notes that the story & pictures are being picked up and run by Arab television networks.  If this story's spin doesn't bring home how one hand washes the other, where the media serves as a propaganda prop to legitimize state actions (or in this case atrocities), then one need only ponder one sentence that passes without comment in the CNN story. "Kimmitt said he has met with representatives of Iraq's newspapers to discuss how to report the story."  Such information sessions are necessary in teaching the newly free Iraqi press its assigned role vis a vis the new state power being constructed in that country.

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