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September 23, 2004

Temptations of Journalistic Grandeur

We spent a whole lot of time gathering and assessing information to include in this story. Lisa Croke travelled from Chicago to Detroit to look over documents and interview the investigators a second time. I spent ungodly hours comparing descriptions and names of places mentioned in our article with other public information about each site, whenever available. All in all, a whole lot more work went into this than Lisa and I and The NewStandard can ever hope to see back in monetary remuneration for our efforts.

However, reward enough would be to see people who care about what the US government and US corporations do to the people of Iraq do something about the situation. There is little doubt that American personnel are committing acts of abuse, torture and rape in facilities throughout Iraq to this day. The main difference between last year and this year seems to be that US troops are no longer allowed to bring their own, personal cameras into detention facilities.

If we were in this for the money, we wouldn't be in it -- that much is certain. But we do want the story itself to get attention, so that if the public cares, they can be informed and at least have the opportunity to act on the matter. That is the most critical and principled objective of a news organization, after all.

Now, I need to confess that I encountered a strange temptation while editing Lisa's article. I had already read a story in the London Guardian where the reporter/editors pretended to be breaking a huge story that would just blow all our minds about the extent of abuse by US troops in Iraq. I realized that we could easily present this story as even better "scoop" -- that is, we could have said no one knew about these 22 or so extra facilities where Americans have held Iraqis and abused them.

But that is not a principled way to approach the news. That is what highly competitive organizations do to exaggerate their apparent clout. And to some extent we all do it; we all want our readers to be impressed. But we at TNS draw the line on that kind of thing before it has the effect of covering up other news stories. You can't pretend something hasn't been reported before if you know it has, thus discouraging your readers from looking deeper.

In his September 14 story, Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor wrote:

Allegations that American soldiers routinely tortured and maltreated detainees have emerged from a third Iraqi city, renewing fears that abuse similar to that inflicted in Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad has been systematic and widespread.

Third city? Reports were already available from all over the place. In fact, the Denver Post had already talked about secret Pentagon documents reporting murders at several different facilities, and The NewStandard has thoroughly documented the case of a man brutally tortured in custody in the Tikrit area. Additionally, late last month, Lisa Croke reported other cases uncovered in the Tikrit area.

The Guardian article goes on to say:

Though the abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail and in Basra has been well-documented, this is the first time claims of abuse have been made from the north of the country.

This is such a strange statement to make -- that no claims have been made from an entire region of the country. I looked for hours and hours to find claims of abuse made about the facilities mentioned in Lisa's article. Regarding some facilities, I am fairly confident that there have been no such allegations published in the West. But to suggest that no one has made (not just reported, but made) abuse claims in an entire region is just strange -- or to suggest that a story like the Guardian's is breaking new ground that should shake the foundations of our understanding of Iraq...

What is stranger still is that the Guardian article is getting many times the coverage ("play" as it were) as Lisa's August 30 piece. That is largely of course because the Guardian is much bigger and better known than The NewStandard. But even among antiwar wesites and other progressive media outlets where we sent our story directly to an editor, the comparatively minor (though definitely significant) Guardian story is linked to while ours is ignored. Even Democracy Now! radio/TV did a segment interviewing the British lawyer who uncovered two or three cases of abuse from Mosul. One of the witnesses in that story describes having seen someone bleeding from the anus. Meanwhile, in our August 30 story, a 15 year-old survivor said that Americans anally raped him. Our story (and the subjects of our story, more importantly) were comparatively ignored by editors who had access to the information, even though the scope of Lisa's and the legal investigators' work is much broader and our research was every bit as legit as The Guardian's.

So it probably sounds like I'm writing all of this to complain. On the contrary, none of this surprises me. It is how the world and the media work, which I have always known. What I want to convey here is that we are a tiny news organization with only a fraction of the budget we need to carry on the very modest work we do right now. We cannot reach all the people who deserve the information in stories like this one written by Lisa Croke. We need the help of others who recognize that stories like these are important and, given proper exposure, could lead to critical changes.

Maybe news of the extent of torture and abuse in Iraq is not "news to you" -- but I would guess a large portion of the US population would be startled to learn it may well still be going on, and that it went on in at least 25 US-run facilities in Iraq.

We need your help reaching those people.


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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.