Paranoia and Skepticism

A note from a friend:

“Sounds paranoid, but has any news outlet checked this out?

[Text at that link:] “There are several postings on message boards

suggesting that the digital watermarks on the Berg and Abu Ghraib

videos are exactly the same. While at this point we have no concrete

confirmation of this, it would fit with other examples of how the Berg

execution and Abu Ghraib torture scenes are very similar. The

contention is that Berg was killed by the US military as a staged

psy-op to distract attention from the torture scandal, an execution

blamed on ‘CIArabs’.”

My response:

“Give me a fucking break. Honestly. The first conspiracy theories about this were floating around on the Web within 24 hours of the Berg news being reported. I’m sorry, I take this as a sign of our spreading sick credulity, in the same category with the reports that all the Jews working in the World Trade Center were told not to come to work on 9/11 (sounds paranoid! but did anyone in the media REALLY check it out thoroughly???). ”

Should the media be skeptical and inquisitive? Of course — much, much more so than they generally hves been in the whole Iraq affair, especially at the outset. And yeah, of course, rumors should be checked out. But take a look at the link, and you find not a rumor, but an urban legend: People posting that they’ve seen messages on the Net about video watermarks, about anonymous experts at Kodak who’ve analyzed the Berg and Abu Ghraib videos, and how the whole thing is going to break on national news “tonite” (at some unspecified point in the past). Do I have a knee-jerk tendency to reject this kind of rumor-mongering? I do, and I often have to check that to see that I’m not reacting out of pure defensiveness or unwillingness to believe unpalatable truths. On the other hand, I wish people were a little less willing to believe whatever some “authority” says on the topic of the day, whether it’s Colin Powell talking about the mobile bioweapons labs in Iraq or some doofus pushing his Nick Berg conspiracy theories online.

I think the damage in focusing on nutso rumors, like the ones about the Kodak experts and the digital video watermarking, is that real aspects of the events that led to the Berg murder are overshadowed or ignored. For instance, it’s clear that Berg was in custody and had contact with U.S. agents, officials, and troops. How about a full accounting of those contacts, a real timeline, so we can get an idea of how he managed to fall into the hands of his captors? (Yeah, I believe some bad Iraqis who don’t like us killed him, not some CIA types doing “psy-ops”; if for no other reason, I believe that because the CIA hasn’t managed to get a single thing right in Iraq that we know about, and I find it hard to believe their first successful operation was cutting off this kid’s head.) If we get that accounting, then we’d have a picture of U.S. officials’ real culpability in what happened to Nick Berg.

What’s News (2)

Our preferred local news show — amazing that such a thing still exists– comes on at 10 p.m. But lately, it’s had competition: From “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. I’m sorry — this might be the only way I can make it through our “Giant Mess O’ Potamia”.

What’s News

A double bankshot from the world of Journalism Navel Gazing: An Online Journalism Review brief on an item on the Poynter Institute site:

“A new Intelliseek service could be a godsend for Web-savvy editors, Poynter Online reports. The ‘automated trend discovery system’ compiles the most popular names, phrases and links in more than 1 million blogs to find out what issues and personalities might be tomorrow’s front-page news. Steve Outing, a senior editor at Poynter, was surprised to see that the top news stories — prisoner abuse and beheadings in Iraq — did not top Blogpulse’s “key phrase” list. Rather, according to Blogpulse, many Weblogs are more concerned with the Mexican air force’s UFO sighting, Ralph Nader’s Reform Party endorsement and Abu Musab Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader who allegedly beheaded American Nicholas Berg.”

Wow. Torturegate didn’t make the list. And parenthetically, but without the parens, I absolutely love the use of “allegedly” in that description of the Berg murder. Yes, journalists must pantomime their belief in the presumption of innocence and objective distance in criminal matters (even though they generally report the cops’ or government’s word as gospel). But this is where that exercise turns fatuous. Someone proclaiming himself to be Zarqawi is carrying out the murder on camera; further the reported evidence points to Zarqawi’s personal role; and finally, there’s no legal allegation at issue — there’s a video, a claim, and a bounty on a wanted man’s head. So if you want to be careful, you could say “the al-Qaeda leader suspected of beheading Nick Berg” or, “Zarqawi, the apparent self-proclaimed killer of Nick Berg” or something like that. But please, don’t use “allegedly.”

Constructive Criticism

One of the really disheartening things about Bush’s Baghdad Blunder is the fact we’ll be stuck with the consequences for decades beyond the point where Laura Bush holds a press conference at the spread in Crawford to announce W doesn’t remember who he is anymore, much less why he wanted Iraq so bad. The challenge for the Bush opposition now is to offer some constructive ideas for how to do what the reigning boneheads seem incapable of — actually improving the situation in Iraq, if only as a prelude to our saying, “It’s been nice, but now we have to go home and have a nice cold one.” An example of this sort of constructive approach comes from the liberal Center for American Progress, which just put out a list of suggestions for what the U.S. authorities ought to do to deal with the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.


Well, I didn’t write yesterday. Felt flu-ish, though I wasn’t totally flattened. To break the monotony of aches. nausea and cold sweats, I spent part of the day reading “The Devil in the White City,” the best-seller that weaves together the stories of 19th century America’s most marvelous world’s fair and its most methodical serial murders, which unfolded side by side in Chicago. The book’s very good. I also pondered the cause of my brief illness — purely physical, or a combination of a bug and overwhelming Iraq crap, between the Bush-Rumsfeld post-Abu Ghraib publicity offensive and the heart-sickening murder (in Iraq) of Nicholas Berg, that poor kid from Pennsylvania.

Torturegate … Is on the Air!

I just got .15 seconds (yes, 15/100ths of a second, or about 12 gnat heartbeats) of fame deriving from my historic role as the father of torturegate (the word). This sliverette of recognition arrived in my Outlook Express inbox from The O’Franken Factor at 8:45 a.m. PDT:


I’d like to talk to you ASAP to ask a question about the word “torturegate”—my number is [deleted], or you could email me your number. Much appreciated!

Ben Wikler


The O’Franken Factor

Yeah, I got all hot and bothered about it. I called as soon as I saw the note, having visions of snappy on-air repartee with Al Franken and perhaps the spontaneous creation of a new career in radio. But the reality fell somewhat short of that. As Mr. Wikler told me, Mr. Franken was talking about torturegate (the word) this morning on the show, and specifically the claim from Fox’s Sean Hannity that the word was invented by Democrats who are part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to politicize the abuse allegations and get rid of Rumsfeld. So, off the air, he asked me — probably the world authority on torturegate (the word) — whether I was a Democrat? whether I had called for Rumsfeld’s resignation? whether I was part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to politicize the abuse case (answers: yes; no; no, I think).

I would love to have talked to Franken, though.

They Had It Coming

Sen. James Inhofe,Republican of Oklahoma, has had enough of the crying and moaning over torture of Iraqi prisoners. It’s real simple, he says: The guys who were mistreated had it coming. As quoted by CNN and Reuters:

“I’m probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment. I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations, while our troops, our heroes are fighting and dying,” he said.

“These prisoners, you know they’re not there for traffic violations,” said Inhofe.

“If they’re in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners — they’re murderers, they’re terrorists, they’re insurgents. …. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands. And here we’re so concerned about the treatment of those individuals.”

Not a Lie, Not the Truth

One of the tactics the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Damage Control Team (BCRDCT) is using to try to contain Torturegate is to show the world how utterly forthcoming they are — have always been — about the issue of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib facility. Rumsfeld testified, backed up by an official Pentagon timeline, that in January “the Central Command public affairs people went out and told theworld. They told everyone in the world that there were allegations of abuse and they were being investigated.” That statement set everyone running to Web and news archives to find the January release. Saturday, the LosAngeles Times reprinted the information the military actually put out on January 16, 2004:

“An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner. The Coalition is committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect and humanity. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the Commanding General, has reiterated this requirement to all members of CJTF-7.”

The Times’s story notes that the release — what you might call understated, given the fact someone had just presented officers with a pile of hot photographs of prisoners being abused by soldiers — was one of three released that day (the other two focused on U.S. military activities). BCRDCT did some Nexis homework before Rumsfeld hit the Hill on Friday, because one of the points mentioned to show how the authorities have done their best to bring this whole situation to light was that the media picked up on the story in January. And in fact, a Nexis search shows that the bare facts of the press release did make it into dozens of news outlets the day after the military put it out, almost always as one item in an extended digest of other developments. The Associated Press, NewYork Times and others talked to the Pentagon about the release, and came away with statements saying that the abuse allegations were”serious” and “credible.” The story got wide, but not deep, play in Canada. Two days after the release, London’s Sunday Times ran a longerstory on detainee abuse, highlighting the case of a man who had fallen into the hands of U.S. forces, then was imprisoned and beaten.

But for the most part — with notable exceptions, such as a March 3 Salon story that detailed abuses at Abu Ghraib — the story stopped for most of the media. Bottom line for now: the damage-control folks downplayed the events in January and got away with it; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the media never looked hard enough at what was there.

George, Rummy — Listen Up

From Justice Louis Brandeis’s dissent in Olmstead vs. United States:

“… Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. …”