Originally created 05/05/04

CBS News says it held off on prisoner abuse story for two weeks



NEW YORK -- CBS News delayed reporting for two weeks about U.S. soldiers' alleged abuse of Iraqi prisoners, following a personal request from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Gen. Richard B. Myers called CBS anchor Dan Rather eight days before the report was to air, asking for extra time, said Jeff Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes II."

Myers cited the safety of American hostages and tension surrounding the Iraqi city of Fallujah, Fager said, adding that he held off as long as he believed possible given it was a competitive story.

With The New Yorker magazine preparing to run a detailed report on the alleged abuses, CBS finally broadcast its report last Wednesday, including images taken last year allegedly showing Iraqis stripped naked, hooded and being tormented by U.S. captors at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Fager said he felt "terrible" being asked to delay the broadcast.

"News is a delicate thing," he said. "It's hard to just make those kinds of decisions. It's not natural for us; the natural thing is to put it on the air. But the circumstances were quite unusual and I think you have to consider that."

Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said there should be an "exceptional principle and argument" to justify withholding news of such magnitude.

"You'd have to be convinced that these other American lives are truly on the line," he said. "I would want to have a very specific and short time period (to withhold the news). If CBS believes it was justified, to hold back two weeks seems like an awful long time. Perhaps a day or two. But two weeks is a long time, particularly with the nature of the allegations in the video."

Steele said he was troubled that CBS did not disclose during the show that the images had been withheld. "This is very important," Steele said. "There should have been a disclosure at the time of the broadcast."

Fager said he believed the story was better because of the delay; CBS was able to interview Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt about the alleged incidents because the network waited.

Myers, speaking on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, confirmed that he asked CBS for the delay.

"You can't keep this out of the news, clearly," Myers said. "But I thought it would be particularly inflammatory at the time."

Fager knew that CBS had to consider safety issues in deciding when to run the story. "We can't just be acting in a void," he said. "There's a war going on and Americans are at risk, especially the ones that are being held hostage. It concerns us."

Although one American hostage recently escaped and others may have been killed, at least one hostage is still believed held in Iraq.

Steele pointed out that Iraqi prisoners could have been at risk, too.

"Allegations of this nature, the violation of the rights of the enemy prisoners, should not be taken lightly in the slightest," he said. "It's possible that their lives could be in jeopardy as well. ... it's not impossible to consider that at least their health, if not their lives, were at risk."