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Should Abu Ghraib Pictures, Nick Berg Video Be Shown?

Aired May 16, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


FIONNUALA SWEENEY, HOST: Hello, I'm Fionnuala Sweneey in London. Welcome to CNN'S INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media covers the big stories of the moment.
We begin with the scenario all too familiar for news editors: What to show and what not to show viewers. First, there was the murder of Daniel Pearl, the mutilated bodies of the four contractors in Fallujah. And now this, another horrific story -- the savage slaying of an American Nicholas Berg. The video, which appeared on an Islamic Web site shows Berg being decapitated. At issue is how much video to show to tell the story without causing offense.

Of course, this video comes at a time when the world is seeing shocking pictures of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison.

Joining me now, the host of CBS' "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer, and also in Washington, D.C., Talal al-Haj, Washington bureau chief for the Arab network Al Arabiya.

Bob, in terms of the American networks' decision, what went into deciding how much of the video of Nicholas Berg to show and what not?

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: It's always the hardest question that any news editor has to make, and it's how much of a violent scene do you show. In war, do you not show any of the wounded, or you -- do you show some of them? In a traffic accident, what do you show? It's something that has to be done on a case by case basis. Because in order to tell a story, you have to show the violent side for people to really understand it.

But there comes a place, as there was in this story, where do you draw the line? I think nobody -- I know of no mainstream news organization that actually showed this -- this man being beheaded. We showed his picture, we saw his captors, but I don't think anybody would be that graphic, or argue that you had to show that to tell the complete story. I think we had to show enough of it to show just how awful it was, but there comes a place where you do draw the line.

SWEENEY: Now, Talal, the Arab media has never been shying -- shying away from showing gruesome pictures, so what decisions were made by your network, Al Arabiya, regarding the execution of Nicholas Berg?

TALAL AL-HAJ, AL ARABIYA: Fionnuala, it is not only my network, other television stations -- I know of no television station or even a newspaper that showed pictures of the slaying of Mr. Berg. This is a shock to everybody. It's a gruesome murder.

However, I'm based in Washington, D.C., as you know, and United States, and I have read about ABC Radio, for example, Sean Hannity has played 30 seconds of the screaming of Mr. Hannity -- of Mr. Berg. Also, "The Dallas Morning News" has shown a picture, a still of the -- edited somehow -- but of the -- of the slayer holding the head of Mr. Berg.

This didn't happen even in the Middle East. I think this is gruesome pictures. We didn't show them. Nobody I know have shown them. And it's not only because it's painful for feelings of the viewers, they get the idea. And we also have to be as journalists, not only balanced and fair in our reporting, to be compassionate to the victims, whether dead or alive.

SWEENEY: Bob, let me ask you about -- to pick up there on Talal's point about Nicholas Berg being held up in the Dallas newspaper. Is there an argument for showing gruesome images in the light of the pictures that have been edited to a certain extent that we've seen from Abu Ghraib prison?

SCHIEFFER: Well, there is always, and these are things that simply have to be done on a case by case basis. We don't have censors in this country. When you have a free press, the press is sometimes -- some parts of the press is going to do things that other parts of the press does not agree with. And clearly that's the case.

I do not know about this Dallas news picture. But had I been the photo editor and the news editor there, and if indeed that did happen, I would have argued against doing it. They made a decision to do it.

But each organization has to make up its own mind about what -- what it's going to do here, and that's -- that's part of what -- what the press is all about.

SWEENEY: I didn't ..

SCHIEFFER: Every news organization is free to do what it thinks is in good taste and what it thinks it has to do in order to tell the story.

SWEENEY: And in the days of the Internet, when these videos are clearly available, and my colleagues, some of them rushing to the Internet to look at that video, do you see a situation when CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN are going to become almost likely public service broadcasters, deciding what they feel is right for the public -- American public to see?

SCHIEFFER: You know, I don't think we'll ever be that way, because we are a news organization that has editors and reporters. When you think about it, the -- the Internet is the first vehicle for distributing news on a national and international scale that is basically unedited. Even the worst newspaper normally has an editor, and normally, at a newspaper, the smallest newspaper, more than one person will be brought into any decision like that.

But in the -- with the Internet, you have a vehicle to distribute news, and anybody who can get access to that can put ever -- whatever he or she wants to, put that right on the Internet, and it is going to be distributed around the world. That's why we have to be so careful, as journalists, about using the Internet as a news source.

The Internet is really not a news vehicle in -- in the sense that we know news vehicles. What it is it's basically the national water cooler, where people gather to trade rumors, where they sometimes trade facts, but you never know, and everything you see there has to be checked out.

SWEENEY: For the moment, gentlemen, we will leave it because we're going to take a very, very short break, but we will be back momentarily with more from Bob Schieffer and from Talal al-Haj, in Washington, on the discussion. Stay with us.


SWEENEY: Welcome back to INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. We continue our discussion with Talal al-Haj, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, and also in Washington, Bob Schieffer, host of CBS's "Face the Nation."

Talal, let me ask you this -- in the video of Nicholas Berg's killing, his executioner said it was a retaliation partly for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the Americans. Follow along from that, is it -- is it automatically fair to juxtapose those pictures, the video with those pictures that have been released of Abu Ghraib prison? Is it a fair comparison?

AL-HAJ: I don' t think so. I don't think these people who did that deed to Mr. Berg need any justification to what they do, actually. I think they were trying -- they know they are losing support, as well as any to talk about, in the Middle East, and in the Muslim world, and they used these pictures to try to win back support. The Arab governments are cracking hard on them, you see examples of that everywhere in the Middle East. I think they're trying to use the pictures, the detainees, the abuse that -- nobody, you know, is arguing about this abuse and violation of their rights -- to justify the evil that they do. And to win back some sympathy from the Arab world. They don't need that -- the pictures to justify what they did.

There is one point also about what Bob was saying. It's not only the editors that made this decision about -- there's also responsible news agency, picture news agency. I've seen one or two pictures news agency, international ones, distributing these pictures of the whole video of the killing and the slaying of Mr. Nick Berg. I called them myself, I protested, I say -- say, these are gruesome pictures, you don't need to give it to the whole world. We know what happened to him. They argue that this is the decision of each television station, and my answer to them is that if the television station decided to put these pictures on the screen, you have contributed to it. So there is also another fact, it's not only the papers, the television stations, but they are fed these pictures, even if they don't know how to get it from the Internet.

SWEENEY: And Bob, let me ask you, we're talking here about in some ways about control, that certain agencies can release these pictures, certain people can go to the Internet and have a look at these pictures. I never asked about the Pentagon. Has the Pentagon really faced up to be assured of control, the release of pictures. Is it a good idea to release the pictures? What is it doing? And really, is the media in America sort of a hostage to all of this? And this -- and the way in which this war is being fought almost in a -- in a new way, a new manner?

SCHIEFFER: Here is where I think the problem is. I personally do not want to see the pictures that the Pentagon still has not released. I'm told that they're worse than what we've already seen, and what has already been released. For me, personally I think that I know enough about this situation. I don't need to see anymore pictures.

Here is the part that concerns me, however. It seems to me that the Pentagon was moving very slowly on this case. Yes, they have conducted an investigation. But clearly, some two months after that investigation had been completed, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Richard Myers, told me on this broadcast, at the very table where I sit today, two months after that investigation was completed, he told me the report -- that investigation was still working its way up the chain of command, and he hadn`t yet seen it.

It seems to me that the Pentagon didn't move to correct these abuses that had taken place in a forceful and energetic way until this came out and -- and was made public.

So it concerns me that these pictures have not been made public for that reason, but as far as my own need to see them, I have no desire to see them.

SWEENEY: But in a sense as well, if the photographs weren't released, Talal, maybe there wouldn't have been as much movement by the Pentagon over the last two weeks to try and readdress (ph) the situation?

AL-HAJ: Yes, and the irony about all of this, now they are quoting the stipulations in the Geneva Conventions that forbids insult to the prisoners and detainees. Well, these things did happen, and the Geneva Convention was not followed. And now we are coming to the pictures and say, take it as an excuse not to -- to broadcast all these pictures. I find it a little ironic.

I need to add also about the Middle East networks and televisions, and -- for example, my station has highlighted the story of Nick Berg for two days. It was leading the news on our station. I've heard some people labeling accusation that we don't care about when American citizen gets killed, when the detainees stories came out that we made a big fuss about it. And I'd like to draw also a comparison with the press in this country. "The New York Times" has two stories about the detainees -- or three stories in the first page, and then story about Nick Berg. "The Washington Post" has two stories on the cover page about the detainees, and three inside about the detainees, that's five in total, and one story on page 21 about Nick Berg.

I think we're trying to be fair, we're trying to be balanced, quoting a phrase here. But we're trying to be fair. Our reporter yesterday was camping outside Mr. -- the family of Mr. Berg -- Nick Berg in West Chester. We're trying to cover it as fair as possible, and I'd like to -- here, to take this opportunity to assure people, we're not trying to be unfair, because this is an American citizen or it`s an Iraqi or an Arab.

SWEENEY: All right. My final question to you, Bob Schieffer. The CBS broke this story. Where does the story end for you? Briefly.

SCHIEFFER: Well, there are still things that we're investigating. There are still abuses that have not yet been uncovered. Where we're looking now is further up the chain of command to see how far this went. Did in fact, these low-level enlisted men, were they acting at the suggestion of others higher up the chain? This question has not been resolved at this point, and that's basically where we're focusing our investigation.

Of course, the important thing here is, we have got to get this corrected. This is not the way the U.S. Army is supposed to operate, it's not the way that we want our forces to operate. We'd better get this done for our own good, not because of -- what impact it has on other countries, but what impact it has here. After all, do we want our children to think that is the way we treat enemy combatants? The answer to that, of course, is no.

SWEENEY: Bob Schieffer, very nice to meet you. Thank you very much. Indeed, Talal al-Haj, both of you in Washington. Gentlemen, thank you.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) troops were categorically not taken on a ride.


SWEENEY: And Britain`s "Daily Mirror" newspaper comes under fire for what the British government says are fake photos. We'll discuss how digital technology is changing the landscape of news.


SWEENEY: Welcome back. Iraq is becoming a war of images, many of them verging on the kind of icons of the conflict, taken with a simple click of the digital camera and then loaded on the Internet. And the headlines, nothing short of dramatic.

Ironically, generals have nothing to do with these. So is the digital image (UNINTELLIGIBLE), a revolution in photography and the news itself.

Here to discuss this, Peter Howe, former picture editor of "The New York Times" magazine and "Life" magazine, and author of the book "Shooting Under Fire."

And here in the studio, Paul Eadle, investigative journalist. Paul monitors Islamic militant Web sites.

My first question to you, Peter, do these developments mean that people like you could soon be out of the job?

PETER HOWE, AUTHOR, "SHOOTING UNDER FIRE": I sincerely hope not. But certainly, it is extraordinary, the way that digital technology has the potential to give a new role to the amateur photographer, which they previously did not have.

SWEENEY: And, of course, the distribution is there as well, Paul, because they can now just put it up on the Internet, and anyone can see it.

PAUL EADLE, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Yes, anybody with a handycam and a computer has now got instant access to world public opinion, and that`s crucial when you have a war, such as the one in Iraq, which is as much being fought on the battleground of public opinion, as it is on the ground.

SWEENEY: And this battleground of public opinion, is this something that the Pentagon is ready for? Is that part of Donald Rumsfeld's complaints, when he says before the Senate Armed Services Committee that we're in a new era, when anyone with a digital camera can put these pictures out on the Internet? So I mean, some cynics would say that's the point of what's been happening in the Iraqi prisons, but at the same time, it is warfare on a new scale?

EADLE: It is a new form of warfare. And I think that -- that Pentagon dimly sees it, but I`m not sure that it really understands all of the consequences.

I think the fact is that for Western democracies, anyway, in the 21st century, there are now very serious limits on the use of military power. You can use it to deter a government such a North Korea from using nuclear weapons. You can use it to overthrow a government. But you can`t use it to defeat sub-state groups using political violence, like al Qaeda.

SWEENEY: Peter, the images that we've seen there of Nick Berg being killed, or the video indeed leading up to his death, they're described in many ways as iconic. How does that define itself to you?

HOWE: Well, it'd be interesting if either that or the ones of Abu Ghraib do become the photographs by which we remember this war, because it would be the first time that an iconic image or iconic images out of the conflict have been taken by amateurs. This has never happened before. This used to be (ph) always the work of professionals. And so this is absolutely the result of being able to easily take a photograph, which is of good quality, good photographic quality, and then attach it to a computer or CD or whatever, and distribute it very widely. Before -- I mean -- soldiers have always taken photographs in combat, but generally, those photographs had a very, very limited distribution. And I think that is the difference that we're talking about here.

SWEENEY: And Peter, then, how do we judge the veracity of photos, if there's not a limited distribution source? Or a control distribution (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

HOWE: Well, I think -- I think this is a problem that goes way beyond just the photographs: I mean, one of the things that the Internet's done I think, has -- has in some way altered the playing field for journalism in general. So much of the information you see on the Internet, whether it is written information, or in some form a vision information, has not been checked, has not been fact-checked. Anyone can put it up, and remarkably people seem to believe it, simply because it's on the Internet.

SWEENEY: And Paul, is that the price we pay for living in a democracy?

EADLE: Yes. I think it is a problem, but I think people are also much more media-savvy. In the Middle East particularly, the Arab-speaking world, where people are very used to censorship, people are now very skilled in taking information from a whole host of different sources, satellite television, different Internet sources, and weighing up and making their own judgments.

SWEENEY: So why does that -- these people like yourself -- you monitor Islamist Web sites, how did people react, for example, when the Nick Berg video was released? Did you see an increase of interest of interest of people wanting to purview that?

EADLE: Yes, there were people coming to my site, looking for it and asking for it. I think that increasingly the audience across the whole world is more media-savvy, and they -- they watch the mainstream television, such as CNN, but they also go online, in the hopes to get direct to the source.

SWEENEY: And Peter, does not rise the question, then, about the shock threshold? People are shocked by these photos from Abu Ghraib, people are shocked by the video of Nicholas Berg. There is the possibility that these might not be the iconic images of the war if we see something else more shocking or more traumatic.

HOWE: That's absolutely true. And, you know, where we go from the here is quite a terrifying prospect. I think there is also another aspect to it, which is I think the higher the threshold of shock, the higher the threshold of the kind of pornography, the images that we're seeing now, the more numbing an effect it has on people. And in fact, it becomes almost a self-escalating process. People become inured to and turn away from these images. So, those people who are trying to use the images for the manipulation of their own purposes raise the stakes even higher.

SWEENEY: So, in a sense we're dealing with al Qaeda, or a form of al Qaeda that's really quite media-savvy, and its ability to shock and wage a war against public opinions is probably stronger than -- as anything as journalists we know, and also, certainly, the authorities in the West trying to deal with it.

EADLE: Yes, make no mistake. Al Qaeda uses extreme violence in order, then, to manipulate public opinion. The whole point of killing Nick Berg was to film it and put it on the Internet. So al Qaeda has built a media machine, a network of Web sites and message boards that distribute its message and magnify the impact of its extreme violence.

SWEENEY: And of course, Peter, we know that to have been true because his body was found. In the case here in Britain of "The Daily Mirror" pictures that the British government say are absolute fakes, we don't know whether that can be truth. So there really is -- there is no control. The judgment that each individual is being asked in the public to use when they see these images is probably at a greater standard than ever before.

HOWE: It is, and it's very, very difficult for the general public to make those kinds of decisions. I mean, I've seen "The Mirror" photographs, and the first glance you would say, yeah, OK, they look pretty authentic. And so that, you know, it is becoming increasingly difficult.

I think a couple of things that are interesting, though, is that it is the images which give the authenticity, it is -- "The Mirror" were not interested in that story until they had photographs. The reports from the Red Cross and other agencies were going through to the American government for months and months and months before this broke. It wasn't until the images came out that suddenly everyone took it seriously; suddenly everyone said, wow, this is really true.

So, the power of the imagery is that it does seem to authenticate information which comes -- often comes from other sources.

SWEENEY: All right. I'm afraid we're out of time, gentlemen. Peter Howe in New York, Paul Eadle here in the studio, thank you both very much for joining us.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. Tune in again next time for another look for how the media are handling the big issues.

I'm Fionnuala Sweeney. Thanks for joining us.



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