Press wrestles with grim clips

Media extensively cover the prison scandal while rejecting the most obscene images.

Buffeted by a roiling debate over explicit images of violence, American news organizations are walking a fine line between good journalism and bad form as they try to cover the war in Iraq without alienating readers and viewers.

Should they listen to commentators demanding the broadcast of the unedited video of Nicholas Berg's execution? Is it time to downplay the prison-abuse photos to help protect US soldiers, or time for the media to throw all its unpublished images onto the Internet?

Mainstream newspapers and major TV networks have been groping for a middle ground as they cover both the prison-abuse scandal and war casualties while rejecting the most violent and obscene images.

Some TV news programs chose to show the moment when Mr. Berg's killer pulled out a knife before killing the visiting American. But none showed the decapitation itself. And The Washington Post, which published another round of prison-abuse pictures on Friday, has declined to run dozens of photos for a variety of reasons, in some cases because they're too sexual or violent. "These are human beings, and we're trying to be judicious," says executive editor Leonard Downie Jr.

But those efforts haven't quelled controversy over the volatile images, according to a new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey and other polls. Many Americans support the media's watchdog role of investigating and exposing prisoner abuse, while others worry that repeated display of shocking photos may cross boundaries of propriety at home or prompt new attacks on Americans abroad.

In seeking the right balance, mainstream news organizations are grappling not only with their own traditions but with emerging rivals, such as the Internet and talk radio.

Vaughn Ververs, editor of The Hotline, National Journal's online political newsletter, argues that the press is in danger of becoming irrelevant, with so many people turning to the Internet - where the Berg video is enormously popular - in search of the most complete war coverage. News organizations are "no longer the gatekeepers of what Americans see and don't see," says Mr. Ververs. "They're at risk of losing their audience to a large extent."

The quandary of what to show

Still, the media outlets play a gatekeeper role, weighing what a general audience, including children, should see.

The Post is especially cautious about what it puts on the front page, Mr. Downie says. Indeed, many newspapers have chosen to stuff the most shocking photos inside, where they're often smaller and in black-and-white. In California, The Sacramento Bee ran a warning on the front page about explicit material on an inside page.

The Christian Science Monitor, too, has been careful in passing disturbing images along to readers.

"We ask ourselves what is truly new information, whether it is still news by the time we publish, and whether publishing amounts to facing an important issue or simply wallowing in the depiction of suffering or causing further harm to the victims," says Monitor editor Paul Van Slambrouck. "All this means we've been highly selective and used images only when essential to the meaning of the story."

Standards are different in the radio world, even amid an industrywide crackdown on explicit programming in the wake of the Janet Jackson's breast-exposing incident during the Super Bowl. Local and national radio talk-show hosts, including Fox News commentator and bestselling author Sean Hannity, aired the unedited audio of the Berg video, complete with the victim's gruesome screams. "I know you don't want to hear this. But you should make yourself hear it, because it is ... evil in your midst," Mr. Hannity said.

Along a similar vein, Laura Schlessinger, the radio psychologist known as "Dr. Laura," told listeners last week that high-school students should, with parental permission, watch the Berg video to better understand the war.

Little worry of tampering with history

Newsroom denizens do say there's one thing they're not worrying about - the effect of the Iraqi images on world events. "It doesn't enter into the consideration at all, and it shouldn't," said veteran reporter Terence Smith, correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS. "What we're trying to do is report the news and what's going on, not affect the war effort one way or another. And it would be very hard to decide what the ultimate impact of these photos will be."

According to a Monitor/TIPP poll finished last week, most Americans have another perspective. Some 52 percent disapprove of the release of the prison-abuse photos. A similar question in a CBS News poll found 43 percent objecting to the images' release. And forty-nine percent of those polled by CBS said the media spent too much time on prisoner-abuse stories.

While those numbers suggest antipathy toward, or at least frustration with, the press, ombudsmen at five daily newspapers - in Houston, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tucson, Ariz. - report that the most graphic images from Iraq spawned only mild to moderate interest among readers. There's much more uproar when papers tinker with TV listings, the comics, or the crossword puzzle.

Houston Chronicle reader representative James T. Campbell says liberals wanted to see more prison photos, while conservatives clamored for more images of Berg to show terrorists are "barbarians."

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