NPR Thrice Promoted Salon.com’s Rehash of Abu Ghraib

National Public Radio provided publicity to the leftist website Salon.com on three shows Thursday for their release of previously unseen (if not notably different) pictures of American abuses at Abu Ghraib. Nowhere in their three dollops of publicity did NPR label Salon as liberal or left-wing, or explain that they oppose President Bush and the war in Iraq. They did not mention how Salon compared Abu Ghraib’s humiliations of prisoners to the killings of civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam war, as former Time reporter and USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro argued in explaining why the leftist website published the new photos.

Shapiro saw only torture condoned at the highest levels of the administration:

Abu Ghraib also symbolized the failure of a democratic society to investigate well-documented abuses by its soldiers. After an initial flurry of outrage, the Republican-controlled Congress lost interest in investigating whether senior military officers -- and even Pentagon officials -- created a climate in which torture (yes, torture) flourished. In similar fashion, the Army still seems intent on ending this shameful story by jailing the likes of Lynndie England and Charles Graner. At least after the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, Lt. Calley was convicted. (Italics his.)

The publicity push began on Thursday’s “Morning Edition,” when co-host Steve Inskeep interviewed Salon editor Joan Walsh on their new stash of photos. He began with one that’s slightly challenging:

INSKEEP: Have to mention that these photos resemble images that are already published. Do they change our understanding of what happened at Abu Ghraib?

Ms. WALSH: Well, you know, I think the sheer number of images, and we went through them all day yesterday, really brings home how pervasive this torture was. And I think, you know, we do have a few images that expand our knowledge of what went on there. I think, you know, arguably, the most disturbing is one of a handcuffed soldier being sodomized with an object. And there are several scenes of sexual humiliation. So, I think, yes, we've seen, you know, the piles of bodies, and, you know, female soldiers appearing to celebrate in front of them, et cetera. But these additional images really form a pretty searing impression of wanton and cruel abuse.

A soldier "being sodomized"? That doesn't match how Walsh, in a defensive letter to Salon readers, described “the scene of an allegedly mentally deranged prisoner apparently sodomizing himself with an unidentified object.” In this piece, she explained why Salon published Abu Ghraib photos, but not the Muslim cartoons: "There's something essentially wrong about equating the Mohammed cartoons and the Abu Ghraib photos, anyway. The former are Op-Ed pieces commissioned by editors; the latter are images of actual events. We can and do condemn the hate and violence the cartoons provoked. But as Americans we are directly complicit in the violence that took place at a prison run by the American military. It is our story in a way that Danish cartoons can never be."

NPR didn’t “bludgeon” Walsh on the contrast like she says Tucker Carlson did on MSNBC. (Walsh first welcomed the chance to answer the question, but as Carlson kept pressing, she struggled to satisfy him with an answer.) NPR was nicer:

INSKEEP: Was it a hard decision to decide to publish what you had obtained?

Ms. WALSH: It was. You know, days of conversation among our editorial managers, more discussion about how to do it than whether to do it. I mean, Steve, these are the images we believe and we, the Center for Constitutional Rights told us they believe they are too, that the ACLU and the center have been fighting for, that a federal district court judge released to them, and the government appealed and got them locked up again. So, you know, these are images that many people, and especially civil libertarians believe, are an important part of the public record on the Abu Ghraib scandal.

Inskeep asked mostly bland questions:

– "Who collected these photos in the first place?"

– "Now, you've not reported who provided you these photos, is that correct?"

– "Did your source tell you why this person thought it was important that the public see these photographs?"

– "Joan Walsh, what do you think is still unknown about the Abu Ghraib scandal?

That brought more talk about punishing all the higher-ups who are assumed responsible.

On the evening newscast “All Things Considered,” anchor Michelle Norris reported: "Today the web site Salon.com published previously unreleased photos of abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison in 2003. The website’s editor said it has more than 1,000 photos and videos showing U.S. service personnel humiliating and abusing prisoners. The pictures were provided to them by a member of the military. Their publication comes on the same day as a new damning report about the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."  

NPR defense reporter Jackie Northam added: "The pictures that appear on Salon.com are perhaps the most graphic, most disturbing images that have been released to the public since the abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison broke nearly two years ago. Two of the pictures show long blood smears leading out of a jail cell, as though someone had been dragged by their hands or legs. Another shows a bound prisoner apparently sodomizing himself with an object."

Here again, NPR didn't question Walsh or Salon about her claim on the blood-smear photos. What if they weren't American-inflicted wounds? Walsh claimed in her letter to readers: "In the end we published 18 photos. We ruled out photos that depicted horrific scenes that we couldn't be sure were the result of abuse -- while disturbing, certain subsets of images might be photos of people who arrived at the prison dead or injured, who were injured in the course of a battle and not during interrogation or torture."

Northam allowed Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman to plead that this isn’t the standard the media (including Salon) used for the Muhammad cartoons. She added: “Even if the photos are old, there’s concern of renewed anger, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners and that only low ranking U.S. soldiers have been punished.” For NPR’s reporters and listeners, it’s an article of faith that this scandal does right up to Rumsfeld’s office. The second half of her report focused on United Nations/European Union/American professor outrage over alleged human rights abuses of detained terror suspects at Guantanamo. (Notice that the online version of the ATC story offers one of Salon's photos, and a helpful link to Salon.)

Lastly, the hat trick came when Salon was mentioned again by Northam in a Guantanamo roundup on the NPR show cooperating with another liberal website, the NPR/Slate show “Day by Day.”

NPR should be getting a free set of premium online advertisements after the three spots they gave Salon.com for their latest rehash. (PBS has advertised there before.)

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis