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Newspaper readers might be diminishing in number, but they’re not getting any less inquisitive or ornery. In September I heard from Chicagoan Frank Palmer, a frequent correspondent. "The nation’s press," he wrote, "was up in arms when the Sudanese arrested a Yank reporter for the Trib." This was Paul Salopek, who spent over a month as a prisoner in Sudan, where he was accused of spying. "Freedom of the press is a universal principle," Palmer continued. "Every government should be held to it. Well, almost every government. It turns out that the U.S. military has been holding an AP photographer for FIVE MONTHS. No charges have been filed. Want to bet that the printer’s ink spilled over this case won’t be a fraction of that spilled over the earlier one?" I didn’t take the bet.
Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi Sunni, was arrested April 12 by U.S. marines in Ramadi, and he’s been a prisoner since – at this point over 11 months. The U.S. military in Iraq has told journalists that Hussein's been linked to al Qaeda members and to Iraqi insurgents. The Associated Press lobbied quietly on his behalf until September, when the exasperated wire service went public. "Bilal Hussein has been held in volation of Iraqi law and in disregard to the Geneva Conventions," AP CEO Tom Curley said in a statement. "He must be charged under the Iraqi system or released immediately."
The December-January issue of the American Journalism Review carries a ten-page story on Hussein. In it, Curley’s quoted as saying the AP has tried to investigate every specific claim the military has made against its photographer and found them to be "false or total exaggerations." Says Curley, "I have no problem saying the Pentagon lied to us more than once."
AJR is a trade magazine. There was a flurry of coverage in the popular press after the AP brought Hussein to the public’s attention, but he hasn’t gotten much attention since -- though as long as the AP is working on his behalf it can hardly be said the media have forgotten him. (To keep up with the coverage, visit the Web site the AP has established for Hussein.) AP spokesperson Linda Wagner says, "Some blogs, such as Daily Kos, have referenced the situation recently, and a number of year-end stories about the dangers of being a journalist have mentioned Bilal's detention."
What about the Tribune, which was rightly preoccupied with Salopek last summer? It published a toughly worded editorial on September 21. "America is in Iraq to help foster a democratic system and the rule of law," it concluded. "That means Hussein deserves to see the evidence against him and respond to the charges. If he was using a press pass as a cover to help terrorists, bring that out in a fair trial. Otherwise, free him." According to the Tribune’s archives, the paper hasn’t mentioned Hussein since.
But newspapers can’t write about everything -- that's why it's so easy to accuse them of sins of omission. Tribune reader Robert Pruter of Elmhurst is grumpy because he caught columnist John Kass writing something that in his eyes was not only nasty but dead wrong. On December 22 Kass’s subject was Barack Obama, and he said this: "He’s a decent fellow and I like him. He might make a fine liberal president someday. And though I disagree with him on policy, I’d bet my White Sox tickets that his wife, Michelle, won’t keep 800 secret FBI files of their political enemies hidden in some White House bedroom."
Pruter recognized this as a shot at Obama's competition, Hillary Clinton. Hundreds of FBI files of Republicans turned up in the White House early in the Clinton presidency, and word was that the president’s wife had ordered them brought in. But in the end the office of the independent counsel concluded that a low-level White House aide had requested the files on his own authority because he mistakenly thought they were on people who still worked at the White House and had to be cleared for access.
"Filegate," as it was called, obsessed President Clinton’s critics, including independent counsel Kenneth Starr. The Washington Post's Bob Woodward would write, "[Starr] also would proceed with the FBI files probe. Again, Clinton was absolved. His staff had written a 400-page memo showing that they had no evidence tying Clinton to the files. Why continue? ‘My order says I have to focus on Anthony Marceca and others!’ Starr said in protest, referring to the Army detailee who had worked updating FBI files collected by the White House.... He had a duty." Robert Ray, who was Starr’s successor, shut the investigation down.
Pruter e-mailed Kass to tell him he was "appalled" by the column and to walk him through the facts. Pruter wrote editor Ann Marie Lipinski, whom he mistakenly referred to as the publisher, about Kass, advising her "to terminate his employment." Leaving no stone unturned, he also e-mailed the Tribune's public editor.
He says no one at the Tribune got back to him. The column was left to speak for itself in the Tribune archives, mainly about Kass's dislike of the Clintons.