In the latest edition of CJR, Eric Umansky tackles the thorny issue of how the press has covered the slow-brewing torture scandal that has riled the American military and intelligence services. While currently a Gordon Grey Fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism, Umansky is late of the Today’s Papers column for Slate, and has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. For updates on his work, you can also check out his blog, EricUmansky.com. CJR Daily spoke with Umansky on Thursday.
Paul McLeary: You begin your piece with the story of Carlotta Gall, the New York Times reporter who broke the story of the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan. She originally submitted her report in February 2003, but her editors at the Times sat on it for a month, before burying it on page A14. You talked to about 40 reporters and editors for the piece — did many of them have similar stories about their editors being reluctant to run stories about torture?
Eric Umansky: It’s not that the paper didn’t want to publish it, it’s that the top editors didn’t want to put it on the front page — and at first they were sort of skeptical of the story, which I think is a reasonable response. The foreign editor, Roger Cohen, whom I spoke with, could have just run it inside on any day but to his credit he kept pushing for it to get better placement, so it kind of created this standoff at the paper.
But were there instances in which stories were buried or reporters were frustrated? Sure. There are other instances where stories about abuse didn’t get much attention in terms of getting a good bounce — they kind of fell into the ether. The seminal one for me was a Washington Post story from December 2002 that basically laid out what we know today — that there are secret prisons where abusive interrogation methods are being allowed, and that people were being shipped to places where they were being tortured. You would think that that would have been a big story — but it wasn’t. It got a little bit of attention, but it really just kind of disappeared.
PM: Why do you think that is? Because we were in the middle of a national debate about invading Iraq?
EU: I think that’s part of it and that’s what Barton Gellman, who was the co-author, along with Dana Priest, of the Washington Post piece, said. He was saying it within the context of, “Hey, reporters who could have dealt with this stuff intelligently had their attention elsewhere because the country was debating the war, and that’s a big deal.” I think there’s some validity to that. I also think that — and this is sort of tautological — but because it wasn’t a big story, it didn’t turn into a big story. First of all, the Post didn’t blare it across the front page, it had this kind of constipated headline — “U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations” — and you don’t look at something like that and think, “Oh my God, get my editor on the phone, we gotta do a follow-up!” It’s all about framing it, and sometimes it s not a scandal until someone says it’s a scandal.
PM: You write that the media’s uncertain approach to covering the torture story comes, at least in part, through “long-standing journalistic shortcomings; for example, the tendency to treat both sides of an issue equally, without regard to where the facts lie.”