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The Media on Nicholas Berg: So What?

The news of Nicholas Berg's gruesome murder came urgently in mid-afternoon on Fox News Channel. Anchor Shepard Smith didn't - couldn't - show the video that had hit the Internet. He handled it gravely, correctly. He explained the deadly facts, how masked Muslim fanatics screamed praises to Allah as they savagely sawed off Berg's head - the head of an American who came to Iraq to help it rebuild.

How would this story grab the American news media? How would it change the media's obsession with much less graphic photos of sexual humiliation of prisoners? Many suggested that since the media wanted to make such a show out of the Abu Ghraib pictures, they ought to do the same with the Berg murder. An endless spiral into more and more gory images isn't the best way to run a news business - or a foreign policy. But it's instructive that after news reports had touted the public's "right to know" about Abu Ghraib, to see every picture, suddenly some images weren't supposed to stick in the public mind.

But there's more to this double-standard story. While NBC aired 58 stories on U.S. prison abuse in the first few weeks of that story, NBC aired only five stories over 16 months on the discovery of Saddam's mass graves. Abu Ghraib holds 1500 prisoners, a fraction of whom were abused. Saddam's graves held as many as 300,000 people, all of whom were murdered. How is Abu Ghraib ten times more important than that?

Sadly, the distortions continued. With few exceptions, the Berg beheading was at best a two-day TV story, an obstacle to get around, a white-noise distraction from The Scandal. Berg died. The media's take: sad, but so what? That shouldn't register in public opinion. On the very night of the Berg story's emergence, ABC's "Nightline" couldn't spend more than a few minutes on Berg before Ted Koppel was back to soliciting John McCain to explain what horrific treatment Americans might dish out next.

By the second night, even though NBC was showing the Berg photo in the show's introduction (sitting in front of his captors), but the newscast itself was sticking to prison abuse, prison abuse, prison abuse. Dan Rather was touting a new CBS poll showing "public support for the war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level yet" and "the President's overall job approval rating in the latest poll is at a new low, 44 percent."

One wishes Rather had not skipped the other salient points about the CBS poll. By 57 to 37 percent, Americans surveyed didn't want any more prison abuse pictures to be released. And 49 percent said the media have spent too much time on the prison abuse story, compared to a mere 6 percent who think it's been undercovered. Not only were those poll results not aired, they don't seem to have caused anyone to put the brakes on the careening Abu Ghraib Express.

When it came time to sum up the week, the Sunday morning TV shows were predictably harping on prison abuse, and mostly left the Berg story out. The weekly news magazines glossed over Berg in varying degrees. U.S. News & World Report's cover read "Inside the Iraq Prison Scandal. The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Why the System Broke. The Psychology of Torture." Inside the magazine carried ten pages of Abu Ghraib coverage, but gave just about three-fourths of a page to the Berg killing. Time carried a Bush/Iraq cover with no mention of Berg. It carried five different Abu Ghraib articles, and one sidebar on Berg.

Newsweek was the worst of all. The cover carried the hot authors of the evangelical "Left Behind" novel series on the cover, with a top-of-cover plug for "The Truth About [U.S.] Torture." Inside the magazine, there was no Berg article. None. They carried an almost two-page sidebar on Iraqi insurgents, profiling young Mohammed, who sought to kill American infidels "living on bread and Pepsi," but no Berg article. In a political analysis, Howard Fineman mentioned in passing, "Officials pointed out to the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq as proof that the Middle East needs to be cleansed of the likes of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda." Berg's life was reduced to a Bush strategy of prison-abuse damage control to "declare American righteousness."

The Berg story was not a slam-dunk pro-Bush angle, as anyone who saw Berg's Bush-blaming father could attest. But it did show that somewhere in the world, there is someone morally lower than the Americans. Apparently that's a truth that our news media somehow cannot stomach.