Between Clinton's Somalia and Bush's Iraq, the Press Learned to Censor the News

04/06/2006 10:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is it news when nearly three years after 'Mission Accomplished,' the charred body of a U.S. soldier gets dragged around by taunting Iraqi insurgents and videotaped for the world to see? According to most American television news outlets the answer is no.

News of the upsetting videotape surfaced Wednesday morning and by the afternoon Pentagon officials, emphasizing to reporters they were outraged about the online video, had all but confirmed the contents of the clip, which showed the burning wreckages of a U.S. helicopter, as well as pictures of a dead, charred pilot being dragged through a field. But just because it was authentic didn't mean the videotape was newsworthy. In the 12 hours after the story broke, CNN, for instance, mentioned the downed helicopter just once, which was one time more than MSNBC, CBS, or ABC. Interestingly, Fox News was the most aggressive in reporting the story on Wednesday, giving it 16 mentions according to, but being quick to announce the channel would never actually air the images. NBC Nightly News aired a detailed piece Wednesday night about the video, and actually broadcast blurred images of the U.S. corpse being abused. But NBC was also careful to couch the story as one about Iraqi "propaganda," not about what it meant that insurgents were shooting U.S. copters out of the sky seemingly at will three years after Iraq was supposedly liberated.

But does the distasteful topic of a U.S. serviceman being dragged around as part of a primitive victory lap sound vaguely familiar? Like say, Mogadishu in 1993? In my upcoming book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, I note the dramatically different guidelines the MSM employed when it came to showing upsetting wartime images during the Clinton and Bush presidencies:

[In 2003] ABC anchorman Charlie Gibson completely agreed: "Any time that you show bodies, it is simply disrespectful, in my opinion." For ABC, wartime reporting apparently meant avoiding "troubling" and "disrespectful" dispatches. Meanwhile, CBS officials at the time also vowed not to air any images of the dead U.S. troops.

That represented a dramatic departure from the standard used just 10 years earlier during president Clinton's first term, when most major American television outlets aired a grotesque news clip of a bloated U.S. soldier's corpse being dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, after rebels there shot down American helicopters and killed a dozen soldiers. The incident became the basis for the book and movie, Black Hawk Down. In 1993 the MSM saw clear news value in the awful images, and what they suggested about the failure of U.S. foreign policy, and gave them prominent play. They simply reported the event as news, which it was.

CNN was counted among them. At the time, the channel's, executive vice president for news gathering, Ed Turner, was adamant about putting the disturbing images on the air. "We are in the job of reporting. You hate to distress people, but it sort of goes with the territory," said Turner. In 1993 CBS's nightly newscast also broadcast the gruesome clips from Mogadishu. In fact, CBS aired the most graphic of all the three networks; footage of three Somalis standing over the body of a U.S. soldier and jamming the muzzle of their rifles into the soldier's backside.

But in 2006, both CNN and CBS saw virtually no news value in a similar video clip from Iraq. Not only did CNN and CBS fail to air the images, but both news outlets essentially ignored their very existence.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...