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American television behind Iraq curtain

Washington, April 1: The entire world yesterday saw grisly images of four Americans shot, beaten or burnt to death in Iraq, their bodies dragged across the streets of Fallujah. But not television viewers in the US.

Ordinary Americans were in the same boat as Soviet citizens in an era gone by, when they had to listen to foreign radio broadcasts to get details of air crashes in their country.

Or the Chinese, who found out the extent of the Sars contagion only after the World Health Organisation criticised Beijing’s suppression of news about the epidemic.

Jim Murphy, the executive producer of CBS Evening News, acknowledged that video feeds received by TV stations were “three to five times worse than the Mogadishu footage” of similar scenes of dead US soldiers being dragged along streets in Somalia in 1993.

But most Americans had to wait until morning newspapers came out today to see charred bodies of Americans killed in Fallujah yesterday. Or turn to the Internet.

Even as US media networks were receiving the first lot of eight pictures from Associated Press Television News in Fallujah around noon yesterday, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, was at his daily briefing urging reporters that “we hope everybody acts responsibly in their coverage” of this “despicable attack… It is offensive, it is despicable the way these individuals have been treated”, he said.

Television viewers in London, Paris or Madrid quickly got to see those pictures, but news producers at networks across the US decided to heed McClellan’s advice.

CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and others showed only footage of the burning sports utility vehicle in which the Americans were travelling at the time of the attack, but their reporters in Baghdad did not withhold facts about the attack and its aftermath.

So much so, the Bush administration was on the defensive by evening amidst murmurs of censorship in the media.

Bryan Whitman, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for public affairs, said: “It is not the practice of the Pentagon. The Pentagon did not advise the networks as to whether or not they should show gruesome footage.” Fortunately for the producers of TV news programmes in the US, a teenage girl from Wisconsin, who has been missing since last weekend, was found alive in the afternoon.

So their coverage quickly switched to the girl. And there was more news from the commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks, the staple of most networks in the last fortnight. There were rare dissenting voices in the visual media, though.

Leroy Sievers, the executive producer of Nightline at ABC News, said in a message to ABC’s e-mail subscribers that “if we try to avoid showing pictures of bodies, if we make it too clean, then maybe we make it too easy to go to war again”.

That precisely is the worry in the White House and at the Pentagon. After detailed coverage of the downed Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia in 1993, the Clinton administration was forced to abandon its military mission in that country.

Similarly, pictures of a naked, running Vietnamese girl burned by a napalm bomb became the signature photo for those opposed to US involvement in Indo-China.

By evening, thanks to dissenters and the Internet, some networks began airing electronically blurred images from Falluja. But in most cases the bodies of Americans hanging from a bridge across the Euphrates could barely be recognised as such. Murphy, said to be one of those who argued within his network for more graphic coverage, said, for instance, that “CNN showed so much restraint it wasn’t really covering the story”.

For most of the US media, which acted as cheerleaders of the White House in the invasion of Iraq, the main problem yesterday and today was explaining the jubilation among vengeful Iraqis who celebrated the killing of Americans in Fallujah.

“Why are 10 year-old Iraqi boys so happy the Americans are killed'” asked one viewer. “These boys had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein.”

But most TV anchors had no answers to such questions from viewers who are getting increasingly sceptical about the case for war.

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