Sunday, December 16, 2007

TV: ABC's Cesspool

Watching ABC's 20/20 Friday, it hit us all over again why everyone we know working on network's news magazines -- including on 20/20 -- considers it the sewer of news magazines.
After the first story finished (before the half-hour mark), the show promised such 'hard-hitting' features as John Stossel explaining exactly how far you could drive a car on "E" (empty) and "travel myths." Honestly, we weren't up (down?) to it. We saw no value in wallowing in the cesspool that is 20/20 and, besides, worried what we might catch by doing so.

Last week was a strong one for ABC News, which only made the fact that they couldn't produce an hour of news in an alleged news magazine (or even a half-hour) all the more disappointing. The week started with Brian Ross, Maddy Sauer and Justin Rood reporting on 22-year-old Jamie Leigh Jones who went to Iraq to work but ended up getting gang-raped by employees for Halliburton/KBR. Following the rape, she was held in a 'pod' for 24 or so hours, denied food and water and threatened with punishment if she reported what had happened. She only got released when she called her father (a sympathetic KBR employee passed on a cell phone) and he called US House Rep Ted Poe (their representative) who then contacted the State Department. As she explained on 20/20, "I said, 'Dad, I've been raped. I don't know what to do. I'm in this container, and I'm not able to leave."

And what punishment did her attackers receive? That is the big question right now.

US Senator Hillary Clinton wrote the following last week to Secretary of State Condi Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Attorney General Michael Mukasey:

As I hope you are all aware, recent news accounts indicate that Ms. Jones, a Halliburton/KBR employee in Baghdad, alleges she was gang-raped by her fellow employees and then held under guard against her will in a shipping container in order to prevent her from reporting the horrific crime. She states that she was denied food and water during her detention and told that she would be fired if she left Iraq to seek medical attention. More than two years later, news reports state that no U.S. government agency or department has undertaken a proper investigation of the incident. These claims must be taken seriously and the U.S. government must act immediately to investigate Ms. Jones' claims. These allegations implicate all three of your departments. If one of your departments has already launched a private investigation, I urge you to disclose your findings without delay. If no investigation has been started, I urge you to decide the proper course for an inquiry into these claims and to commence your investigation with the utmost urgency.

[To read the PDF format letter, click here.]

Others in Congress reacted as well. This Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security will hold a hearing on the issue starting at 10:15 a.m. That was announced before 20/20 aired Friday night. They could break that story because they had another assault report to pair it with. Friday morning, they broke the news that they'd be airing Tracy Barker's story.

With her husband seated beside her, Barker explained how the events unfolded beginning with KBR employees waiting outside to evaluate her looks the day she arrived, the camp manager propositioned her repeatedly and Ali Mokhtare (who worked for -- and continues to work for the State Department) resulted to more than words. Barker explained when she went to look at his reportedly troubled air conditioning, "He had poured a glass of Jack Daniels and offered me a drink, and of course, I declined. He jumped up and grabbed me around the neck and tried to get my shirt off me."

Barker fought him off and reported what had taken place to her camp manager who immediately made sexual offers to her and instructed her not to talk to anyone about the assault by Mokhtare. In addition, she was forced to wear the outfit she had been wearing during the assault (khaki pants -- not shorts, a shirt and vest) "to see if I was any kind of temptation to the male species." As was noted on air, that demonstrated how out of touch those in charge were. We'd add, or how much they thought they could get away with.

The State Department 'investigated' and Mokhtare did admit to some things including that he had "made a mistake and it was stupid" -- it was criminal -- and yet he was not fired. He was not disciplined. He kept his security clearance and continues to work for the State Department. He also walks around at a leisurely pace, even while avoiding the ABC News' cameras and refusing to answer questions while speaking into his cell phone.

Barker's husband made it very clear that this was not over and that they will continue to seek justice as long as it takes.

We admired his spirit and wished 20/20 had shown a similar spirit. ABC News broke stories last week while most just rewrote government press releases. What aired showed a lot of time and effort.

Which made the nonsense topics that were to follow all the more disgusting. We asked a friend with 20/20 to explain exactly what they were going for with that lineup and were told "a mix." A mix of news stories might have worked. But "travel myths" and John Stossel driving around on "E" didn't strike us as news stories. The news magazine started out with a hard-hitting, investigative piece of journalism that any daily paper would be lucky to have and then 'rounded' that out with features that wouldn't qualify for those freebie lifestyle magazines on airplanes. What did the 'mix' really say because what it said to us was that 'all things are equal.' It said that sexual harassment and rape were equal weight to diversions and fluff. It said that they were all the same thing which meant that, in the end, none of them were really important.

That's why 20/20 is seen as the cesspool. Even on the rare occasions when it actually does offer news, it surrounds such a report with so much junk that it leaves little impression. It stands out for a moment, like something you might spot on your way into a flea market, but, as you wade through, you forget it as you're submerged in the mundane.

There was a ghost lingering over the first report, an unspoken name. Suzanne Swift. All Swift wanted to do was be a soldier. She went to Iraq to serve. Instead she was repeatedly assaulted and the victim of command rape. Her story includes the fact that, when she reported the abuse, she was sent to a 'training' to 'teach' her how not to 'invite' such assaults. It's a bit like Barker being ordered to 'test' the outfit she had on to determine whether or not it would 'prompt' sexual assaults.

Swift did the only sane thing when the military refused to protect her, she got the hell out. There's not a woman alive who would stay in a situation where she was repeatedly assaulted and her attempts at following the chain of command resulted in no improvement. (Well, some might stay with their weapons loaded to blow the assholes' heads off.) For that, she was arrested. Giving the stateside command the benefit of the doubt that they didn't know the full story might allow you to forgive the arrest. But what followed was a white-wash investigation (that still supported many of Swift's statements about the abuse) and a court-martial. Swift was punished and her attackers weren't.

The 20/20 segment offered that there was an attitude at KBR (and the State Department?) of "Boys will be boys." That appears to be the same mind set as when Swift's sent for 'training' in how not to 'invite' assaults. Or take Amanda Blume who had her fellow (male) soldiers show up at her barracks door screaming, "Why won't you date any of us, b**ch?" before they kicked down the door and began assaulting her. Her outcome? She was charged with assault for striking one of her attackers. She explained to Matthew D. LaPlanet (Salt Lake Tribune), "They told me they knew I had hit one of those guys and that was the only thing they could prove." The only thing they could prove or the only thing they wanted to prove? Certainly the door being kicked in could be verified . . . if they'd bothered to send anyone out to look into it -- but they did not send anyone out. The assaulter she hit? An investigation might wonder how he ended up in her barracks at night when he was "under orders to stay way" from her after he'd already been stalking her. Later, Larnelle Lewis assaulted her. This time she went with civilian justice and Lewis didn't contest the three counts of misdemeanor assault but even then he didn't get punished. Those are far from the only women being assaulted in the military.

Traci Hukill examined the issue (The Progressive, January 2007) and found:

Last year, the Pentagon received reports of 2,374 rapes or attempted rapes from all of its bases worldwide, about 40 percent more than the year before. But that's probably just a fraction of the real number. One reason the crime still goes unreported may lurk in the annual report: Last year, just seventy-nine servicemembers were court-martialed for sexual assault. Why bother reporting if nothing will happen to the perpetrator?

Hukill opens her report relating Kelly Dougherty's disgust with having to to encounter pornography while serving in Iraq and how she and other women serving were instructed not to visit the showers alone because, otherwise, they might be assaulted. (Dougherty is a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War.) In the same issue of The Progressive, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg offered Abbie Pickett's experience:

In addition to the usual marks of war -- bombings, death, and tedium -- Abbie says she also had to contend with corrupt leadership and rampant sexual harassment. She was introduced to the military's misogyny as a nineteen-year-old, when she says she was sexually assaulted by an officer on a two-week training. She never reported it.

But in Iraq Abbie did speak out -- and faced the consequences. Her officers punished her by sending her out on unnecessary and dangerous missions, she says. Eventually, her superiors were investigated and relieved of their command, she says.

Jane Hoppen tackled the issue of MST (Military Sexual Trauma) in "Women in the Military: Who's Got Your Back?" (Off Our Backs) and noted:

For women in the military, sexual trauma usually occurs in the very setting in which the victim works and lives -- a setting to which the victim must return. Depending on the circumstances, the woman might actually find herself still working with and taking orders from the man who raped her. Imagine the sense of helplessness and powerlessness, as well as the risk for more victimization. If the perpetrator is in the female soldier's chain-of command, she might even be dependent on him for basic necessities, such as medical or psychological care. The perpetrator might also have control over her career, deciding about evaluation and promotion. Many female soldiers who become victims of MST find themselves in a situation where they must either see the perpetrator every day or sacrifice their career to protect themselves from further trauma.

This isn't unrelated. Dougherty having to face pornography echoes what Barker told 20/20, "On my way into the office, there was pictures of prostitutes and animals having sex pasted in the hallway. Our office was just wallpapered with pornography. There was not one space of wall at all." In fact, though working for civilian contractors, there are many details of Barker and Jones' experiences that echo with those of many women serving in the US military in Iraq.

Ross, Sauer and Rood are to be congratulated on their report; however, with all the time wasted after that report, the question is why it wasn't expanded? Or why wasn't it paired up with a report about women in the military facing these similar assaults?

Though the news magazine had over forty minutes they could have used for news, they instead focused on "travel myths" and what happens when John Stossel is out of gas (a cheat -- we understand he's never out of gas). In doing so, they degraded the strong reporting of the first segment and also degraded the issues that report addressed. In a say-what-you-will note, at least many with 20/20 are aware of that. They don't seem overly concerned by it, but they are aware of it. Possibly, when you live in cesspool you get used to your own stink?

Resources. For female contractors and employees who suffer assault and harassment, Jones has started the Jamie Leigh Foundation. And among the organizations that assist survivors with MST is VETWOW.
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