Last Wednesday's broadcast of 60 Minutes II on CBS included photographs of grinning Army Reserve troops from a Maryland-based unit giving "thumbs up" signs next to captive Iraqi men forced into humiliating sexual poses. Another picture displayed a hooded prisoner, attached to electrical wires and standing on a box, who was allegedly told he would be badly shocked if he stepped away.
The still photos transformed the accusations against troops at Abu Ghraib prison from sketchy, months-old allegations into a global, front-page fiasco for the U.S. military. At the end of the show, CBS anchor Dan Rather told viewers that the network had honored the pleas of Defense Department officials - including Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - to delay showing the story for two weeks "given the danger and tension on the ground in Iraq." In addition, Rather said, CBS spent time successfully pushing the military for a uniformed officer to respond to the charges on the air.
For a few days, Rather's disclosure didn't attract much attention. But the foreign press - especially those outlets serving Arab audiences - have widely distributed the images of degrading treatment of young Iraqi men to near-uniform international outrage. And suddenly, CBS finds itself being both hailed and questioned for how it broke, and handled, one of the biggest stories of the year.
"I think I would probably have done the same thing that 60 Minutes II did," said Joseph Angotti, a former senior vice president at NBC News. "That's a really heavy responsibility for producers and executives to bear."
By contrast, Richard Hanley, director of the journalism and e-media program at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut said CBS abdicated its responsibilities. "They should not have relied on the Pentagon to make the decision," Hanley says. "The images are inflammatory - but the use of them is debatable. If you're going to claim to be practicing journalists, then practice it."
There are echoes of decisions facing past news executives. In April 1961, The New York Times famously watered down an article that was to report that an American invasion of Cuba was imminent after President John F. Kennedy personally interceded. Kennedy later reportedly said that publication of the details might have spared the nation from the debacle known as the Bay of Pigs. After the September 2001 attacks, White House officials advised news executives not to run lengthy excerpts of tapes apparently made by Osama bin Laden, warning that they could contain coded messages to terrorists.
The decisions behind the Abu Ghraib story were made largely by Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II in consultation with Rather and CBS News president Andrew Heyward. As Fager tells it, his choice involved a tricky balance of competitive drive and civic obligations. He knew that producers Dana Roberson and Mary Mapes had an explosive story. And Fager was soon being asked to sit on the story temporarily by an Army colonel, and by other Pentagon brass. Fager agreed, for a week. On April 20, the night before the second chance to run the story on 60 Minutes II, Myers called Rather personally to ask him to hold off running the story a second time. CBS once more agreed.
CBS officials say they were given this message: "You're risking their lives by showing it right now." That risk was said to exist in two ways: It could further inflame uprisings in those Iraqi cities, and it could imperil the two Americans believed to be held captive by Iraqis. (One, a civilian contractor, escaped on Sunday.)
"We held off what we thought was a reasonable amount of time, especially with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asking," Fager says. "We told them we would take it one day at a time."
Asked last Sunday why he had asked CBS to delay a second time, Myers said that the U.S.-led coalition needed to get Iraqis more involved in maintaining order in Najaf and Fallujah, where violence had flared against the occupation. "You can't keep this out of the news, clearly, but I thought it was - would be - particularly inflammatory at that time," Myers said on ABC News' This Week.
By the start of last week, however, famed investigative reporter Seymour M. Hersh was working on the same story; he had also obtained photographs that appeared to document the abuse, along with the classified report that condemned a systemic breakdown in leadership for the abuses at the American-run prison. And CBS knew it.
"That Monday, we knew we had to go," Fager says.
No such call for restraint by military brass was made to Hersh, who writes for The New Yorker magazine.
As Fager runs the television equivalent of a weekly magazine, he held it for two editions. But producers for the network can share material across its various news shows; Fager said it wasn't necessary to do so, because CBS was still able to beat its competitors.
Hanley, the media professor, says that reasoning shows that CBS wasn't motivated purely by civic reasons in weighing whether to run the story. By last Wednesday, the facts had not changed much. The two captive Americans were still believed to be held hostage; the cities, while slightly less violent, were not yet subdued. "That wasn't a pure journalistic reason - it's a competitive reason, which is basically economic."
Hanley also questioned whether CBS sufficiently considered the way in which the foreign press can appropriate images out of context in wartime. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly sounded a similar theme late last week. "I could not put my fellow countrymen, I should say, in even more danger than they are now by running the photographs," O'Reilly said. "You can expect even more crazy jihadists to enlist because of this exposition."
Angotti, the former NBC News official, recalls being asked by the Pentagon in April 1986 to delay breaking the story that a retaliatory bombing attack by the U.S. was imminent against Libya. As the raid started at 6:30 p.m. - the same time as the NBC Nightly News - reporters waited until the end of the newscast to tell viewers.
But that wait involved less than a half-hour, not half a month.
Fager says he doesn't ever remember facing a choice this difficult. "This was a tough period," he says. "This was as tough as it gets. Our instinct was to put it on the air. But you don't want to put people's lives in jeopardy, if that's the issue."
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.