A Coverage Comparison & Analysis CNN (Western Media) vs. al Jazeera On Wednesday, April 28, 2004, a series of pictures broadcast on CBV “60 Minutes II” prompted an worldwide media frenzy that challenged America’s so-called moral superiority, complicated the fight against terror in the Middle East, crippled U. S. relations with the international community and elicited public demands for high-level accountability.
The physical, psychological and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy and homicide of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq unveiled a sobering hypocrisy when juxtaposed with the American enemy, Saddam Hussein, and the abuses he authorized at the very same prison. The powerful photos were irrefutable evidence of the U. S. military and government contractors’ guilt. In an attempt at damage control, the American government quickly launched major internal investigations into the incident.
While two hundred sixty soldiers have faced punishment, only nine individuals in the military have been sentenced to jail time and eight of the nine were below the level of captain.  The Abu Ghraib scandal permeated war coverage for months, even taking priority over such atrocities as the attacks in Fallujah that ended with four American contractors dead, left hanging from a bridge. Although equally shocking and appalling to both the West and the Arab nations, their respective media coverage of the scandal reveals a distinct dichotomy in tone and frame.
These differences are rooted in each media organization’s connection to the history, politics, and culture of their individual region and therefore reinforced by the audiences they depend on. The Abu Ghraib story presented a rare opportunity for the American media to meaningfully direct public discourse regarding the war, torture and accountability, yet these questions went largely unanswered as the press succumbed to an elite-driven frame intended to contain and simplify – not investigate.
The dual analysis of Western media (CNN) and al Jazeera’s coverage of the scandal indentifies these moments of opportunity and creates a greater understanding of wartime media and its potential to significantly impact foreign policy and public opinion. After September 11th, 2001, an unwritten journalistic standard of patriotism arose which significantly altered news content and media frames, especially regarding war and terrorism. The consequences of this type of reporting are evident in the media’s delayed response and investigation into claims of torture at Abu Ghraib and throughout the region.
As early as May 17, 2003, the New York Times reported that detainees in Basra claimed U. S. and British soldiers abused them, an exploitation that Amnesty International believes constitutes torture. A Los Angeles Times article in August of 2003 highlighted four Army reservists charged with beating Iraqi POW’s. During the months (October-December) in 2003 that the alleged abuses took place at Abu Ghraib, the Associated Press distributed a major story in November about three Iraqi POW camps, including Abu Ghraib, based on interviews with former prisoners – no major media picked it up.
Then on January 13, the whistleblower, Army Spc. Joseph Darby at Abu Ghraib, reported the abuse to military investigators, prompting an investigation and one paragraph press release about the abuse. Yet again, most media outlets ignored the announcement. CNN finally picked up the story on January 21, 2004, when they reported that U. S. soldiers reportedly posed for photos with partially clothed Iraqi prisoners. Following suit, Salon magazine filed a story in March about allegations of beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and neglect leading to deaths at Abu Ghraib.
By the end of the month, the military announced that six personnel had been charged with criminal offenses. Finally, on April 28th, nearly seven months after the abuses occurred, CBS “60 Minutes II” aired the graphic photographs of what took place at Abu Ghraib. Two days later, Seymour Hersh’s detailed and damning report in The New Yorker was put on the website, fueling the long overdue media frenzy that would ensue for months.  When the story ultimately broke, the reactions from both CNN and al Jazeera were somewhat similar in that they both expressed a universal sense of shock and horror concerning the photographs.
On the CNN Evening News April 30, 2004, studio anchor Aaron Brown used words like “mistreated” and “humiliated” when describing the photos that were playing on the screen. Brown then featured a short piece about the Arab media’s reaction, claiming they were covering it “like everyone else”. Similarly, al Jazeera correspondents used terms such as “inhumane” and “unethical” to describe the abuse. The cameras showed the streets of Baghdad and the people’s reaction and accusations of “state torture”. 3] Both stations consistently showed the photos during their packages and “let the pictures speak for themselves”. However, al Jazeera clearly used them in a more “round the clock” fashion. The primary reactions of both media outlets reflected an overall sense of shame – Americans embarrassed by soldiers and Arabs humiliated by the dishonor those soldiers inflicted. Despite the likeness of both CNN and al Jazeera’s first coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal, it quickly became evident that their respective media frames would diverge.
Like much of their past reporting, al Jazeera remained harshly critical of America and their mission in Iraq. The Abu Ghraib photos only fueled that sentiment, allowing al Jazeera to label Americans as torturers. Furthermore, the Arab network approached their coverage with a more human perspective that focused on the victims and their personal stories. In contrast, American mainstream media essentially joined efforts with the government and went into recovery mode. CNN utilized the actions and statements of government officials to substantiate their packages.
This reliance on elites enabled a Western frame of the scandal that made it into an “American story” of “isolated abuse” and the desire to place blame. Especially after 9/11, al Jazeera’s war coverage has been hotly contested and often criticized by scholars and American officials alike. At first glance, al Jazeera looks like an American cable news network with its cycle of news shows, graphics, running “breaking news” headlines, talk show analysts, etc. Essentially, al Jazeera has one foot in Western-style journalism and the other in the political and cultural upheaval that has historically defined the Middle East.
This unbreakable connection to the region, the war and it’s victims results in media coverage more prone to show violence and death – images Arab nations expect to see in times of war. According to a media analysis of war coverage conducted in 2003 by the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University addressing coverage from March to April 9th (before the Abu Ghraib story broke on April 28), al Jazeera is extremely likely to show gruesome images of dead/wounded soldiers and civilians, whereas Western networks’ stories showed these images only 13. % of the time.  Al Jazeera’s bias is undeniable yet it is often misunderstood. Even before 9/11, the network consistently airs Osama bin Laden’s tapes, supposedly for increased understanding of his ideology although it could be interpreted as support. Since the start of the Iraq war, al Jazeera “presented Iraqi civilians as invaded rather than liberated”, a sentiment that pervades throughout their war coverage.  In a more blatant form of bias, the network also omits details in their coverage that may put American troops in a favorable light.
Instead, they still refer viewers back to Abu Ghraib and troop wrongdoings.  Even in 2009, al Jazeera had the highest number of prisoner abuse stories.  Not surprisingly, these biases have invoked bipartisan criticism in America that suggests a relationship between the network and terrorists and accuses them of anti-American hate that “deliberately fans the flames of Muslim outrage”.  It’s been alleged that the Bush administration went so far as to pressure the government of Qatar to shut down or censure al Jazeera. 9] However, these criticisms usually come from those who rarely watch al Jazeera and don’t speak Arabic. Further understanding of the network in this way would reveal that it is biased in ways most Western news organizations are towards their audiences, advertisers or partisan leanings – it presents the news in the Arab context. In light of the preexisting bias of al Jazeera, the photos from Abu Ghraib were less surprising and more so evidence of American foreign policy gone wrong that directly compromised the U. S. mission to win “hearts and minds”.
The war was already viewed as an occupation and these photos demonstrated further acts of aggression. Some have classified the images as an “expression of an innately vicious American society founded on racism, imperialism, and sadism”, which in the Arab world is nothing but a logical continuation of the American way of life as they understand it.  Because the abuses at Abu Ghraib happened in their “backyard”, al Jazeera is undoubtedly more in tune to the human consequences, especially when two of their own reporters were supposedly detained and tortured at the prison.
For this reason, the network’s coverage clearly labeled the atrocities as “torture” and explicitly blamed America for it with headlines like, “U. S. FORCES BLAMED”.  Yet despite this strong media frame, al Jazeera allows the Iraqi people to have an independent voice. For example, in May of 2004, on the first episode since the abuse scandal of the talk show The Opposite Direction, host Faisal al-Qassem opted to discuss torture of Arabs by Arab governments in Arab prisons, clearly implying that this story is not simply about America. 12] Although the prevailing theme throughout al Jazeera’s coverage of Abu Ghraib centers around anti-American views, the fact that the network covered all of the U. S. congressional hearings on Abu Ghraib suggests that there may be a silver lining for Arabs – Americans are finally holding themselves accountable. Meanwhile, sensitive to patriotic requirements, Western media and CNN eliminated the loaded term, “torture”, in favor of “abuse”, and failed to capitalize on the opportunity that the Abu Ghraib scandal presented to them.
Independent investigative reporting and diversified political analysis could have facilitated a broader cultural reevaluation of issues such as: America’s purpose in Iraq, the treatment of prisoners, torture’s place in American morality, gender roles in the military, the racial complexities associated with our presence in the Middle East, military hierarchies, accountability of leaders, mental and physical circumstances driving soldiers to torture. 13] CNN posed many of these larger questions during their coverage, however government officials were always given the final word in answering them or ignoring them altogether. The story broke and almost immediately, CNN acknowledged the scandal’s threat to the U. S. mission in Iraq and subsequently formulated their coverage into an “American story” that was mainly concerned with “the impact of the photos on support for the war effort and with the integrity of American intentions”. 14]
The CNN byline that read, “The Fight for Iraq”, and the dramatic emotional interview with Charles Graner’s family after his sentencing in January of 2006 illustrates this shift in point of view.  This frame, coupled with a general lack of information and access, established a problematic dependence on government officials’ actions, statements, opinions and judgments. This suggests, “Event-driven frames, particularly in matters of high consequence, are seriously constrained by mainstream news organizations’ deference to political power”. 16] While the administration attempted to contain the scandal by making high-profile speeches that dominated the airwaves, the Western media was further substantiating the administration’s narrative by interviewing and including various government officials’ analysis in almost all their packages and eventually limiting coverage to official proceedings and investigations only.  The resulting news product, as reflected in the CNN archives, tells an oversimplified story that draws misguided conclusions.
Consistently classified as “isolated abuse” at the hands of a “few bad apples”, the press representation of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib discourages high-level accountability, denies victims’ humanity and identity, prevents productive cultural discourse, fails to engage in international diplomacy issues and equates dissent with disloyalty.  In the same way that al Jazeera incites opposition with reminders of Abu Ghraib, American media tempers public dissent with reminders of 9/11 and the torturous reign of Saddam Hussein.
However, perhaps the most effective government strategy in controlling the message at home and abroad was launching, very publically, investigations and criminal prosecutions of military officials involved in the abuse. Although these proceedings and repercussions indicate a form of accountability, “critical examination has been limited, and the story has largely been focused on the perpetrators and, to a lesser extent, the role of senior military officials and the command structure”. 19] Therefore, as media coverage and newsworthiness declines over time, the occasional story simply reports the status or outcome of those ongoing trials and proceedings, as was the case with CNN and its sparse, abrupt mentions of Abu Ghraib from December of 2004 until today.  This creates a false sense of security in that the problems have been solved. Now boasting over 40 million viewers, al Jazeera is in a position of enormous power and influence, especially in the Arab world.
As evidenced by the recent proliferation of Arabic language news stations and the American government’s uncharacteristic efforts to reach out to Arab media after the Abu Ghraib scandal, al Jazeera has become crucial in disseminating an American message to the Middle East. For this reason, both President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld addressed the Arab world after the scandal broke. In a speech in May of 2004, Bush noted his “shock and disgust” and apologized for the “humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation uffered by their families” (though never claiming responsibility).  Also, in a rare admission, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted that the station’s coverage of the Iraqi elections and Lebanese protests over Rafik Hariri’s murder had aided the cause of reform.  Thus, though the bias exhibited by al Jazeera may not make sense in the Western context or help the American cause, it remains journalism at its core.
Al Jazeera’s power is rooted in its ability to spark public debate about political reform in the Arab world, creating what could be “the most essential underpinning of a liberal democracy: a free and open critical public space, independent of the state, where citizens can speak their piece and expect to be heard”.  This revelation is fundamentally linked to the American goal of establishing democracy in Iraq.
Therefore, instead of censoring al Jazeera’s content and competing with established Arab networks for viewership, Western media and Arab media should work together in order to shed light on commonly misunderstood biases and to provide a broader understanding of both perspectives.  The American brutality exhibited at Abu Ghraib may not constitute this country’s proudest moment, however, the media circus that it provoked constituted a rare opportunity for the United States to directly interact with the people of the Middle East through a medium that didn’t involve the guns, bombs or torture associated with the American occupation.
Though clearly not pro-America, al Jazeera publicizes, gives credibility to, and ensures widespread viewership of the open debate over accepting American support in the Arab quest for political change. This unmatched access requires the West to accept al Jazeera as it is now in order to avoid allegations of hypocrisy within the democracy Americans pride themselves on. Instead of taking a position of superiority in attempting to control the American message to the Middle East regarding Abu Ghraib, the administration and CNN should have facilitated a more open dialogue between networks and their audiences.
Journalistic hostility only reinforces established biases and prevents any true progress. If the goal is winning hearts and minds, the U. S. needs an established pool of Arabic speaking representatives, stationed in major Arab cities, whose primary responsibility is to appear on Arab news networks whenever possible. Though not executed properly following the Abu Ghraib scandal, the event itself marked the strong potential for more effective dialogue between nations.
Impartial American representatives invited to appear on Arab networks would give the American perspective a rational voice, in turn, “keeping Arabs honest, while at the same time demonstrating to Arab audiences that America takes them seriously and is willing to debate them on equal footing”.  This arrangement appears to be the ultimate expression of press freedom and its inherent responsibility to educate its viewers in a comprehensive manner.
Yet the complex relationships between media outlets, ownership, the need to profit, government, and the public, in relation to other networks with differing values, creates a more ambiguous picture. With Wikileaks’ most recent release of the “Iraq War Files” suggesting further abuse of prisoners by U. S. and Iraqi security forces well after Abu Ghraib, all parties are reminded that the lack of high-level accountability and the media’s refusal to publically grapple with core issues concerning torture still inhibits cross-cultural progress in the Middle East.
Incidents and injustices in the “war on terror” like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo must end and both the U. S. and Arab nations need to function with more transparency before CNN (Western) and al Jazeera (Arab) can truly respect the integrity of one another in a professional capacity. America cannot abandon the core values of democracy when waging war in foreign lands, especially if the intention is to build a new democratic nation in its place.
The current era of terrorism and new-age warfare requires a reevaluation of how democratic principles can be effectively upheld in the fight against terrorism, specifically regarding interrogation. In the war of ideas, the media could play a central role in this self-examination so long as it remains independent and inquisitive. However, until a greater cultural understanding is developed and democratic hypocrisy is eliminated, Western and Arab broadcast networks will remain expressions of their respective cultural and political context, influencing public opinion and reinforcing old narratives among their separate audiences.
Although the media coverage of Abu Ghraib failed to initiate productive debate within the gray area that is American superiority and morality in wartime, these miscues illustrate the inherent power media commands over policymaking through the inciting, sustaining and defending of democracy in various capacities. Hopefully we don’t need another Abu Ghraib in order to finally revise our approach to media in the Middle East. Otherwise, the ethnic, religious, cultural and political ivides that have defined the region for thousands of years will only be perpetuated by American insensitivities and the exploitation and manipulation of those indiscretions by biased Arab media networks. Therefore, devoid of overarching intrusive restrictions, the international media’s ability to change public opinion and influence foreign policy is solely dependent on its separation from elite-driven frames and its capacity to build cultural and ideological bridges between nations in times of crisis and war.
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