Jewish World Review May 21, 2004/ 1 Sivan, 5764

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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When Saddam meets Jerry Springer | Great events usually march to the beat of the presses of the great newspapers (and the cycle of the 11 o'clock news programs). Today's sensation wraps tomorrow's fish.

But not if there's a little sex. Sex has legs.

Both the giants and the dwarfs of "the media" (the name we give ourselves because we think "media" exalts us in the way that "the press" never could) understand sex. Or we think we do. A lot of husbands and wives might have another view.

But sex, though capable of endlessly complicating everything else, is uncomplicated in a way that continuing stories — what kind of government we will leave in Iraq, a presidential race with two flawed candidates, the crumbling of the institution of marriage as the civilized world developed it — is not uncomplicated. Looking at photographs of naked men on a leash held by a bumpkinette in tight jeans, a growing scandal of United Nations complicity in the oil-for-food scheme, or writhing pyramids of naked men, doesn't require an inquiring mind. This is the stuff of National Enquirer, or as John O'Sullivan describes it in National Review Online, "Jerry Springer meets Saddam Hussein." Saddam himself may be a little bit complicated. Jerry Springer we all understand.

There's considerable evidence, and evidence growing by the day, that the readers and viewers of flyover land understand what we do not. The public-opinion polls have quieted the fever to cashier Donald Rumsfeld; indeed, The Washington Post, which commissioned one of the early ones, no doubt wants its money back. The result it got was news fit only for Page 12, revealing that 7 of 10 Americans thought the idea of the president's firing Mr. Rumsfeld, the man in charge of prosecuting the war on terror, as something so wrongheaded as to be nutty. Sane, mature Americans regard civilization in peril as more worrisome than an Iraqi terrorist forced to wear a pair of ladies' step-ins on his head, unsavory as that could be.

Prison reform has never been high on the nation's agenda, as Chuck Colson and others who work to take civilization inside the nation's prison walls could tell you. This is to no credit to any of us. But the rawest newsroom intern could have told the editors and news directors that a public that has a small appetite for reforming prisons in New York, Louisiana, Arkansas or California is not likely to get up a full head of steam for reforming prisons in Iraq, not when the Iraqi prisons are packed with the likes of thugs who massacred and mutilated American civilians and sawed off the head of Nick Berg.

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The only lasting, genuine public outrage the giants of the mainstream media have set off is public outrage at the double standard that has, over a fortnight, decreed wall-to-wall coverage of Abu Ghraib Prison but almost nothing about the tragedy of Mr. Berg. This brutal murder was reported, primly and almost clinically, and then relegated to the back pages and newscast footnotes. CNN has worn out its video footage of the (male) prisoner on a leash held by a (female) American soldier, but was stricken with unaccustomed taste in even talking about the Berg beheading. Women and children might be listening. Nevertheless, the public gets it, even if the media does not.

The story line of the Berg story, brief as the story was, was that the beheading was in retaliation for stripping Muslim prisoners and making them wear ladies' step-ins on their heads. This was meant to suggest moral equivalence, that the Islamist terrorists were driven to their bad deed by their inability to express their rage any other way. This story line, like so much of the mainstream reporting about the war between the civilizations, was dishonest, because Mr. Berg was captured two weeks before the Abu Ghraib story broke.

The tragedy now in the newsrooms of the dominant media culture is that the Abu Ghraib Prison story, though still with legs, is showing signs of fatigue. The conviction of the first soldier, for mistreating his prisoners, and drawing a year in prison himself, is not nearly as sexy as that girl with a leash and those ladies' step-ins. Not only that, but now comes the grim task of reporting that the Army, which uncovered the scandal in the first place, is beginning to do what it set out to do months ago — to investigate and punish.

We might have to get back to reporting the news from the front in Iraq, where the war may be turning out to be not the catastrophe the media have been counting on. Alas, there's nothing sexy about that.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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