the kicker

Greenwald Gets It on WikiLeaks Coverage

October 25, 2010

Salon media critic Glenn Greenwald hammers at a point we mentioned in our first read of the WikiLeaks coverage on Friday afternoon. That is, that as with the Afghanistan dump, there was an obvious disparity between the way that the Times reported out and framed its Iraq War Logs package and the way that Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and particularly The Guardian did.

The difference is what Greenwald calls a “whitewashing,” “government-subservient” approach by the American paper.

While a handful of American soldiers — a few bad apples — may have abused Iraqi detainees in hellholes like Abu Ghraib, those detainees “fared worse in Iraqi hands,” so we weren’t as bad as the new Iraqi tyrants were. That’s the way The New York Times chose to frame these revelations. And while that article mentions in passing that “most [abuse cases] noted in the archive seemed to have been ignored, with the equivalent of an institutional shrug,” the vast bulk of the article focuses on Iraqi rather than American wrongdoing and even includes substantial efforts to exculpate the American role (“American soldiers, however, often intervened”).

And then:

Similarly, newspapers around the world heavily covered the fact that the U.N. chief investigator for torture called on the Obama administration to formally investigate this complicity in Iraqi abuse, pointing out that “if leaked US files on the Iraq conflict point to clear violations of the UN convention against torture, Barack Obama’s administration has a clear obligation to investigate them,” and that “under the conventions on human rights there is an obligation for states to criminalise every form of torture, whether directly or indirectly, and to investigate any allegations of abuse.” Today, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister called on the British Government to fulfill that obligation by formally investigating the role British troops might have played in “the allegations of killings, torture and abuse in Iraq.”

But these calls for investigations — and the U.N.’s explanation of the legal obligation to do so — are virtually nonexistent in the American media. The only mention in the NYT of the U.N.’s statement is buried deep down in a laundry list of short items on one of its blogs. Along with most American media outlets, The Washington Post has no mention of this matter at all (while whitewashing American guilt, the NYT — in the form of Judy Miller’s former partner, Michael Gordon — prominently trumpeted from the start of its coverage the “interference” in Iraq by Iran in aiding “Iraqi militias,” a drum Gordon has been dutifully beating for years).

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Reading the Times report next to its European counterparts is in many ways an illustration in the differences between mainstream American newspaper reporting and that of more partisan presses like Britain’s. Across the pond, the language is stronger, more inflammatory, and the reports plainly more hard-hitting. It’s a style that often doesn’t work for our sensibilities, and a non-partisan, scrupulously fair press is something to applaud.

But it feels that in its presentation of both WikiLeaks war dumps the Times has been tame to a fault; as if afraid of the material that it has been given by a man and organization they’ve sought to greatly distance themselves from, while working with both. As Greenwald says, the reporting seems a bit whitewashed.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.