Pictures that sizzle: That's what broke open the Iraq abuse story

There was a sobering angle on the Iraq-prison abuse story today, hidden down in the body of the latest Howard Kurtz media column in the Washington Post. Find that headline, "A Kerry-Worrying Trend" and then dig down past the layers of inside-the-Beltway paranoia and score keeping. Once again, Kurtz is not making a comment that is directly religious in nature.

But there is a ghost hiding in there, a comment about the way America feels its way through horrifying issues of these kinds and the emotions that flow out of them. If there are a moral, cultural and God-beat angles to the abuse itself, and clearly there are, then Kurtz is onto something important.

The big question line: Why did Americans freak out about this story when we did? After all, reports of trouble in the prisons surfaced last May in the New York Times. I'll let Kurtz take it from there:

In October, the Los Angeles Times reported on negligent homicide charges against two Marines in the death of a prisoner, and said six others were charged with hitting and kicking prisoners. In December, the paper covered charges against a Marine officer who ordered prisoners to stand for 50 minutes each hour, handcuffed, with burlap bags over their heads.

In October, The Washington Post reported on charges against an Army commander who fired his pistol near a detainee's head. And several news organizations reported in March that six soldiers were criminally charged in the alleged assault and sexual abuse of about 20 Iraqi prisoners. Most of these stories ran on inside pages.

Amazingly, CNN reported in January that, according to a Pentagon official, "U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners." The story sank without a trace.

So what happened? As Kurtz put it, why "didn't these reports get what political strategists call 'traction'?"

The bottom line is that mere words on a printed page were not enough to cause action. No, Media America needed pictures. Americans needed something that directly tapped into emotions and caused a hyper-news meltdown. Nothing is real until we feel that it is real. Facts just won't cut it.

And let me add that finding a powerful sexual hook didn't hurt this story either. As we all know, this is what makes for major news play -- even on the God beat. Sex and pictures. I cannot tell you how many journalists have told me (especially television journalists) that one of the main reasons they have trouble selling religion stories to their bosses is that the art is not strong enough. You know, all of those people standing around in robes and gray suits. Ugh. You need something that sizzles.

Pause for a moment and consider the stark implications of this reality for, let's say, the clergy abuse scandals in Catholicism and other religious groups.

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