By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2004; 8:39 AM
Are the media starting to overplay the prisoner abuse scandal?
Some critics are saying: Enough already! We get it. How many more pictures do we have to see?
I don't doubt the ability of the press to overkill any story. But we're learning new information, important information, from the most recent photos, prisoner accounts and investigative reports in The Washington Post, New York Times and other papers.
At the beginning, it just looked like some sexual taunting and ritual humiliation, which was bad enough. But now the media are uncovering pictures in which soldiers appear to be hitting the prisoners. Now we know that three prisoners died after interrogation, under circumstances that can only be regarded as suspicious. Now we're hearing about about prisoners forced to denounce Islam or force-fed pork and liquor. Now we're learning that Rummy ordered tough interrogation tactics for the Gitmo detainees and that some of these may have been transferred to Iraq. Now we're discovering that senior officials knew months ago about the Red Cross reports of abuse and did nothing about them.
And now we're realizing that lots of soldiers knew about the abuse, saw pictures of the abuse, in one case used such a picture as a computer screen saver--and did nothing. With the exception of Spec. Joseph Darby, who took the brave step of blowing the whistle.
I've talked to a number of journalists about this and no one is enjoying this story. It's excruciating stuff, and everyone recognizes it's hurting the country, but it's a painful story that must be told.
What I object to--and there was a point where we seemed to be there--is the media running the same pictures over and over until they become video wallpaper (there's the one of the smoking woman pointing at the guy's genitals again, etc.). I had the same feeling about the Nick Berg video--cover it prominently so we see what kind of terrorist monsters we're up against, but don't flash it on the screen every six minutes so that we become as desensitized to it as another shot of Janet Jackson's boob.
The test should be whether the photos and stories add new information to the saga of Abu Ghraib and other prison camps. If not, we're guilty of regurgitation. But for now, at least, new and ugly material continues to surface.
The president tried to seize the initiative with last night's speech, though the cable coverage was up against people doing disgusting things on "Fear Factor" and Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly in "A Beautiful Mind."
Some reactions, beginning with the Los Angeles Times, which shifts the onus to Kerry:
"Bush did not offer any new initiatives -- apart from a largely symbolic promise to tear down Abu Ghraib prison, where American soldiers abused Iraqi prisoners -- or set a date for the withdrawal of American troops . . .
"The address clearly seemed aimed at what polls show is one of Bush's principal threats in the election: the growing sense among Americans that he does not have a clear plan for success in Iraq. In a statement, Kerry dismissed the speech as a rehash of Bush's previous arguments...
"But if anything, some analysts say, Bush's recitation of what he called "the specific steps we are taking to achieve our goals" could increase demands for Kerry to offer more specifics of his own."
The New York Times sees a rocky road ahead:
"President Bush's speech on Monday night kicked off a critical five-week period in which the White House must not only make good on its pledge to return self-governance to the Iraqi people but also convince the American electorate that the benefits of deposing Saddam Hussein have outweighed the costs in blood, money and battered prestige.
"It is a tall order. Mr. Bush spoke against the backdrop of unabated violence in Iraq, the prison abuse scandal, confusion about the plan for transferring authority to an as-yet unnamed interim government on June 30 and the difficult negotiations concerning the role of the United Nations.
"Making his task that much more complicated was the hard-fought presidential campaign, in which Mr. Bush's role as commander in chief is no longer the unalloyed strength the White House once assumed it would be."
But the Chicago Tribune wonders whether there's a gap between rhetoric and reality:
"President Bush has made a political career of transforming his weaknesses into strengths. A lack of eloquence? He's a straight talker. Not much for nuance? He has a clear vision. Disdain for detail? He's a big-picture leader.
"Those traits are now on trial over the most important decision of his presidency, waging pre-emptive war in Iraq. Those traits were also on prime-time display Monday night, with Bush again trying to summon the kind of clarity of purpose and sense of strong leadership, even moral certitude, that has guided his success.
"With a widening scandal over prisoner abuse in Iraq and stiffening resistance from insurgent fighters producing a closed loop of negative images, Bush was tasked to offer a solution to a daunting problem, a positive road ahead, and to do it in a way that gains political support.
"Bush likely will win points for simplicity--a plan with five points, all sounding clear and achievable like a garden-variety to-do list. Yet he likely will embolden critics who will question how his comparatively rosy portrayal of Iraq is so at odds with what they see and read about."
Bush's numbers are heading south, says The Washington Post:
"Public approval of President Bush's handling of the conflict in Iraq has dropped to its lowest point with growing fears that the United States is bogged down and rising criticism of Bush's handling of the prison abuse scandal, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll . . .
"Support for Bush on virtually every aspect of the Iraq conflict has declined in the past month as the administration has battled insurgents and grappled with the expanding investigation into the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.
"Bush's overall job approval rating declined to 47 percent, the lowest the Post-ABC News polls have recorded since he took office, with 50 percent saying they disapprove. Just four in 10 Americans gave the president positive marks for his handling of Iraq, the lowest since he launched the conflict in March 2003."
The horse race: Bush 46, Kerry 46, Nader 4.
A new CBS poll, by the way, has Bush down to a 41 percent approval rating, with 61 percent disapproving of his handling of Iraq.
Lots of buzz about Kerry's trial balloon about delaying his acceptance of the Democratic nomination so he can raise more cash. Roger Simon says it won't happen:
"Let me count the ways this idea is too dumb:
"1. If Kerry does not accept the nomination at his convention, how will he get anybody to watch it? The damn things are dull enough, but a convention without the presidential candidate accepting? Who would tune in to watch such a thing? And by giving up their audience, the Democrats will give up tons of free publicity.
"And even among Democratic party stalwarts, how many will want to go to Boston in late July to experience traffic jams and security delays without the pay-off of an acceptance speech to boost their spirits and rally them for the fall campaign to come?
"And where does this leave the vice presidential candidate? Does he or she also delay accepting the nomination? And give up one of the biggest viewing audiences he or she may ever get?
"2. According to one expert, Kerry can expect a 14-point bounce in the polls following his convention . . . In other words, by refusing to accept the nomination, Kerry risks giving up a huge poll bounce and all the psychological advantages that go with it.
"3. And what does Kerry get in return? He gets to spend millions of more dollars on TV commercials . . . in August. August! Watch a lot of political commercials in August do you? In fact, let me ask a more basic question: Do you ever watch political commercials?"
People in swing states don't have much choice.
American Prospect's Michael Tomasky also sees the downside:
"Early reaction to the decision among Democrats seems to indicate that they can probably be persuaded to submit to the financial logic guiding the Kerry campaign's thinking; but even so, there's enough unease among Democrats quoted in the news accounts so far to make it clear that the Kerry people will have a lot of persuading to do. It's risky to tamper with precedent. Liberals may be liberals because they want to see change in the world, but change in their own habits is another matter entirely. People like coming to conventions, or watching them, exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons every four years.
"But Democrats' responses represent the smallest risk. The far bigger problems have to do with giving the media an excuse not to cover the convention and handing the Republicans a weapon. This decision could do both.
"I remember being in San Diego in 1996 when Ted Koppel announced he was leaving the Republican convention early. There were chuckles among the journalists hunkering down at the bar at the Marriott, but there wasn't much shock, because the convention was not a news event. Ever since, television networks have been looking for ways to pare back their coverage. This would hand them the perfect excuse, and the way the trial balloon was mocked on the weekend news shows suggests that pressure will build in media-land to ignore Boston.
"There's also a money angle for the networks. Once the drama was gone from the roll-call vote of the states, which happened in the 1970s, the saving grace for the networks has been the Thursday night speech in which the presidential candidate accepts the nomination. That's the only night that's guaranteed to bring in solid ratings numbers, and thus the only night for which networks can charge advertisers a hefty price (except when a retiring two-term incumbent is giving a valedictory address, as Bill Clinton did to mammoth ratings in Los Angeles in 2000). If I'm an advertiser and I know Kerry isn't actually accepting the nomination, I haggle over the price of my 30-second spot in a big way."
Dan Kennedy also insists this ain't happening:
"Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry will accept the nomination in Boston whether it costs him millions or not. The reason is very simple: he can't afford to let the convoluted alternative that his campaign has come up with to become the story.
"But let's stop snickering for a moment at the notion of a candidate so indecisive that he can't even make up his mind whether to accept the nomination at a nominating convention. The fact is that his campaign has identified a real problem, and there ought to be a reasonable solution.
"The Federal Election Commission should find a way to let Kerry keep spending the campaign funds he's raised as long as George W. Bush can. It's absurd to think that federal spending limits should kick in five weeks earlier for Kerry just because the Democrats are having their convention at a normal time of year, while the Republicans delayed theirs as long as possible."
The Wall Street Journal editorial page uses the possible maneuver to score some larger points:
"Thank you, John Kerry. The news that the Massachusetts Senator may delay accepting the Presidential nomination until several weeks beyond the Democratic Party's late-July Boston convention exposes two truths that the political class hates to admit.
"The first is that the party conventions are now little more than free advertising vehicles. They long ago lost all political drama, but this year one of them may not even nominate a candidate. The next step would be for the media finally to agree not to cover them, though we probably won't because these week-long affairs have also become the equivalent of cardiologist conventions for the political press. We get to see old friends and eat well on expense accounts.
"Even better, this Kerry trial balloon exposes campaign-finance limits as a monumental farce. The Kerry camp is considering this maneuver so it can keep raising and spending money as long as possible without having to abide by spending limits that kick in once a party formally nominates its candidate."
Time to reassess the Kerry brain trust, says the New Republic's Ryan Lizza:
"The Kerry campaign's brain trust is regularly mocked and second-guessed for its strategic decisions, while Karl Rove somehow retains his reputation as a genius. Maybe it's time to rethink that conventional wisdom.
"We can already assess the effect of the two big strategic moves of the pre-convention period. The Bush campaign's decision was to spend some $60 million in an attempt to discredit Kerry as a viable alternative to the president before the race really started. The Kerry campaign's decision was to concentrate on fundraising and allow events in Iraq and 527 spending to parry the Bush assault. Conventional wisdom among nervous Democrats outside the Kerry campaign, as well as much of the press, was that Kerry was making a Titanic mistake and Bush was making a bold and brilliant move similar to Clinton in 1996.
"But the results are in. Kerry leads Bush in almost every national poll. His fundraising is astronomical, and he is pumping up his ad campaign just as Bush is ratcheting his down. The two main assumptions of the Bush campaign--that Kerry would be seriously under-funded and that he could be crippled by advertising--have proven to be wrong."
Josh Marshall weighs in on banged-up, bike-accident Bush:
"I can't help but wonder whether the spill the president took from his bicycle won't become iconic in the same way that the state dinner the first President Bush attended in Tokyo on January 8th 1992 in which he collapsed into the arms of, and then vomited on, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa became a symbol of his then-faltering presidency."
Fred Barnes relates a tale about a certain hot filmmaker being celebrated in Cannes:
"A few years ago Michael Moore, who's now promoting an anti-President Bush movie entitled Fahrenheit 9/11, announced he'd gotten the goods on me, indeed hung me out to dry on my own words. It was in his first bestselling book, Stupid White Men. Moore wrote he'd once been 'forced' to listen to my comments on a TV chat show, The McLaughlin Group. I had whined 'on and on about the sorry state of American education,' Moore said, and wound up by bellowing: 'These kids don't even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!'
"Moore's interest was piqued, so the next day he said he called me. 'Fred,' he quoted himself as saying, 'tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.' I started 'hemming and hawing,' Moore wrote. And then I said, according to Moore: 'Well, they're . . . uh . . . you know . . . uh . . . okay, fine, you got me--I don't know what they're about. Happy now?' He'd smoked me out as a fraud, or maybe worse.
"The only problem is none of this is true. It never happened. Moore is a liar. He made it up. It's a fabrication on two levels. One, I've never met Moore or even talked to him on the phone. And, two, I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in my first year at the University of Virginia."
The ball is now in Moore's court.
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