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House Amendment Puts Abuse of Prisoners Back in Spotlight

An amendment from Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Ct.), which was part of a homeland security appropriations bill that passed in the House Oct. 15, would give the Department of Defense the authority to continue to suppress photos that show the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody overseas.

The ACLU has sought the release of the photos and other records of detainee abuse through the Freedom of Information Act. The group’s litigation began in the U.S. District Court in New York back in 2004 and that court ordered the release of the photos in June 2005. The ruling was then upheld by the Second Circuit in 2008. The Obama administration reversed its decision not to appeal the Circuit ruling in May and has asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal.

The release of photos and documents related to the torture and “enhanced interrogation” of those deemed enemy combatants has received scant attention from network newscasts in recent months, usurped most recently in the international news sphere by coverage of the heated policy debate over troop strength in Afghanistan.

Still, the fallout from prisoner abuse is a story that continues to percolate.

The last time the broadcast networks devoted any time in the nightly newscasts to the ongoing story was in late August after the Justice Department released a report detailing abuses inside the CIA’s overseas prisons. The report prompted Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to begin investigating the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes and to decide if a full criminal investigation was warranted.

Prior to that, the broadcast networks devoted considerable time to Justice’s release of the memos in mid-April, but some media commentators were wondering why it had taken so long for television media, particularly the broadcast networks, to devote in depth coverage to an issue that had been known-at least partially-to the public for more than five years.

“The major papers-The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal-leading the pack, have done, I think, a pretty credible job of this right from the beginning,” journalist Mark Danner told B&C earlier this year. Danner has been covering the story for years and published the book Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror in 2004. “Television has mostly ignored it.”

Independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the network newscasts at, said the story is big enough to warrant much more aggressive coverage than the broadcast networks have devoted to it. “It’s not something they’re itching to put the first story on their newscast,” he said.

The reason may be simply due to a lack of compelling visuals, with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse pictures being the one exception. “It’s an almost impossible to illustrate story,” said New York Times reporter Brian Stelter.

But Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight, said lack of pictures has nothing to do with it. “These stories are never easy visually but in the case of a story of this great importance…the pictures are the least of my concern. My biggest concern is getting the story right.”

And getting it right is something Banner believes his network has accomplished more often then it has gotten credit for. “If you go back as far as 2004, 2005, I think we have committed a whole host of resources and focused a great deal of attention on the methods that were underway at the behest of the Bush Administration,” Banner said. “I would emphatically say we did want to cover this story.”

Ted Koppel, his former colleague at ABC, agreed. While Koppel accepted that the story is tough to cover visually, he said a bigger problem–before the release of the memos–had been the Bush administration flatly denying that the U.S. had engaged in torture, putting reporters in the precarious position of calling the sitting president a liar with very little evidence to support the claim.

ABC, in particular chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross, broke a number of stories related to interrogation techniques of detainees. In late 2005, Ross reported on the CIA’s list of authorized interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. Banner noted that these reports came to fruition despite limited access to CIA or government officials (many of whom feared the threat of prosecution if they leaked information about the interrogation techniques) and deep uneasiness among a post-9/11 public.

So why the perception that the broadcast networks have dropped the ball on torture? It could have to do with the politics of language.

While ABC, NBC and CBS devoted considerable news time to the torture memos in the week following their release this spring (23 minutes in nightly news for the week of Apr. 20-24, making it the number one story of the week), the story largely went into hibernation until late summer. And Tyndall was incredulous at the lack of temerity among reporters to refer to the “harsh interrogation techniques” as torture.

At ABC, Charlie Gibson referred to “harsh interrogation” while reporter Jack Tapper spoken about “methods that some consider torture.” NBC’s Andrea Mitchell called the techniques “interrogations that many people call torture.” Katie Couric at CBS seemed to be the most outspoken, opening the Evening News one night in April with “We begin tonight with the topic of torture.”

If the networks take up the story again, it will be interesting to see how they choose to frame the language this time around.

To Tyndall, it’s more than just semantics. “You’re a journalist, first and foremost,” Tyndall said, which impels an obligation to “call it what it is.”

And if what “it” is is torture, Tyndall couldn’t understand the networks’ timidity to label it as such. “Who’s the person that’s going to sue you for libel if you do come out and call it torture?” he asked. “Dick Cheney?…You’d get fantastic publicity out of that.”