MIA: News of Prison Toll

MIA: News of Prison Toll

The media has ignored prisoner deaths suffered at American hands.


The Bush Administration misses no opportunity to smack the mainstream media around for undermining the otherwise stellar reputation of the United States (Newsweek triggered riots in Afghanistan!). But these same media could plausibly be charged–at least some of the time–with burnishing the Administration’s facade.

Although militant jihadists need no particular pretext to justify their anti-American outbursts, surely no feature of the American occupation of Iraq has angered more friends, ex-friends and half-friends abroad–not to mention at home–than the torture and often arbitrary imprisonment of suspects in the chain of prison camps stretching from Cuba’s Guantánamo to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan’s Bagram. Yet to an astonishing degree, the major news media have given a pass to one egregious feature of these American camps, arguably more egregious than torture, sexual titillation, the use of dogs or the desecration of the Koran: the number of detainees who have died in US custody.

It was left to an opinion columnist, the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman, not a news reporter, to declare on May 27 that “the abuse at Guantánamo and within the whole U.S. military prison system dealing with terrorism is out of control. Tell me, how is it that over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody so far? Heart attacks?”

The Times itself recently issued an in-house report calling for a sharper demarcation between news and opinion, and yet in a stark and consequential matter of fact the presumably hard news side has mainly gone missing. The pattern of deaths has scarcely been noticed. Reporters are not doing the needed round-ups, adding up facts and looking at patterns.

I used the LexisNexis database to see what major US news organs have reported about deaths of prisoners in US hands since the beginning of 2005. Here are the results. On television: nothing on CBS, one brief mention on NBC, another on ABC. Nothing on CNN, nothing on Fox, nothing on MSNBC. On public television and radio, now under fire from the head of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for “liberal bias”: After Friedman’s column appeared, Jim Lehrer cited 100 deaths, considering twenty to be “homicide,” and NPR’s Talk of the Nation interviewed Amnesty International’s William Schulz, who said, “Twenty-seven of those detained by the United States have been ruled to be the victims of homicide by medical examiners.” That’s it from the broadcasting subversives. Nothing from Time–or Newsweek.

Among the top newspapers inventoried by LexisNexis (thus excluding the Wall Street Journal), the Times is almost alone in giving any attention to deaths suffered at American hands. A long and powerful front-page article by Tim Golden on May 22 mentioned two deaths under torture in Bagram. Another front-pager by Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt (March 16) was headlined “U.S. Military Says 26 Inmate Deaths May Be Homicide,” citing military officials as its sources. On March 10, in the twenty-third paragraph of a story that started on page one, Schmitt reported that Vice Adm. Albert Church, the naval inspector general, found “68 detainees who died while in American custody,” but that only six “were related to detainee abuse.” Turning to other major papers: An April 28 report in the Boston Globe mentioned “at least 28 deaths.” A Washington Post report on Admiral Church’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee did not mention deaths at all. That’s it from America’s major newspapers.

After the massacres of September 11, 2001, the Times published “Portraits of Grief,” a series that memorialized the more than 2,700 victims. ABC’s Nightline went past its normal length to list the names of all US soldiers dead in Iraq. The sheer numbers of the American dead are of course amply reported, though only some of the wounded are included in official figures. The number of Iraqis thought to be dead and wounded is barely noted. It requires no claim of moral equivalence, no imputation that any or all of the prisoners who died were innocent (or guilty), to say that the death of prisoners at US military bases and prisons is a proper subject of journalistic attention. Friedman, the columnist, rightly called these deaths, whatever their exact number, “not just deeply immoral” but “strategically dangerous.” Surely they matter.

The news would not be gloating, or dragging the Bush White House into imaginary mud, if it compiled and investigated these numbers. It would be reporting.

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