Abu Ghraib: a Coverage Comparison of Western & Arab Media

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ABU GHRAIB - A Coverage Comparison & Analysis
CNN (Western Media) vs. al Jazeera

On Wednesday, April 28, 2004, a series of pictures broadcast on CBV “60 Minutes II” prompted an worldwide media frenzy that challenged America’s so-called moral superiority, complicated the fight against terror in the Middle East, crippled U.S. relations with the international community and elicited public demands for high-level accountability. The physical, psychological and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy and homicide of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq unveiled a sobering hypocrisy when juxtaposed with the American enemy, Saddam Hussein, and the abuses he authorized at the very same prison. The powerful photos were irrefutable evidence of the U.S. military and government contractors’ guilt. In an attempt at damage control, the American government quickly launched major internal investigations into the incident. While two hundred sixty soldiers have faced punishment, only nine individuals in the military have been sentenced to jail time and eight of the nine were below the level of captain.[1] The Abu Ghraib scandal permeated war coverage for months, even taking priority over such atrocities as the attacks in Fallujah that ended with four American contractors dead, left hanging from a bridge. Although equally shocking and appalling to both the West and the Arab nations, their respective media coverage of the scandal reveals a distinct dichotomy in tone and frame. These differences are rooted in each media organization’s connection to the history, politics, and culture of their individual region and therefore reinforced by the audiences they depend on. The Abu Ghraib story presented a rare opportunity for the American media to meaningfully direct public discourse regarding the war, torture and accountability, yet these questions went largely unanswered as the press succumbed to an elite-driven frame intended to contain and simplify - not investigate. The dual analysis of Western media (CNN) and al Jazeera’s coverage of the scandal indentifies these moments of opportunity and creates a greater understanding of wartime media and its potential to significantly impact foreign policy and public opinion.

After September 11th, 2001, an unwritten journalistic standard of patriotism arose which significantly altered news content and media frames, especially regarding war and terrorism. The consequences of this type of reporting are evident in the media’s delayed response and investigation into claims of torture at Abu Ghraib and throughout the region. As early as May 17, 2003, the New York Times reported that detainees in Basra claimed U.S. and British soldiers abused them, an exploitation that Amnesty International believes constitutes torture. A Los Angeles Times article in August of 2003 highlighted four Army reservists charged with beating Iraqi POW’s. During the months (October-December) in 2003 that the alleged abuses took place at Abu Ghraib, the Associated Press distributed a major story in November about three Iraqi POW camps, including Abu Ghraib, based on interviews with former prisoners – no major media picked it up. Then on January 13, the whistleblower, Army Spc. Joseph Darby at Abu Ghraib, reported the abuse to military investigators, prompting an investigation and one paragraph press release about the abuse. Yet again, most media outlets ignored the announcement. CNN finally picked up the story on January 21, 2004, when they reported that U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photos with partially clothed Iraqi prisoners. Following suit, Salon magazine filed a story in March about allegations of beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and neglect leading to deaths at Abu Ghraib. By the end of the month, the military announced that six personnel had been charged with criminal offenses. Finally, on April 28th, nearly seven months after the abuses occurred, CBS “60 Minutes II” aired the graphic...
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