U.S. media release graphic photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib

Month Day
April 30

On April 30, 2004, the CBS program 60 Minutes reports on abuse of prisoners by American military forces at Abu Ghraib, a prison in Iraq. The report, which featured graphic photographs showing U.S. military personnel torturing and abusing prisoners, shocked the American public and greatly tarnished the Bush Administration and its war in Iraq.

Amnesty International had surfaced many of the allegations in June of 2003, not long after the United States invaded Iraq and took over Abu Ghraib, which soon became the largest American prison in Iraq. As the 60 Minutes report and subsequent investigations proved, torture quickly became commonplace at Abu Ghraib. Photographs depicted American soldiers sexually assaulting detainees, threatening them with dogs, putting them on leashes and engaging in a number of other practices that clearly constituted torture and/or violations of the Geneva Convention. 

In at least one instance, the Army tortured a prisoner to death. President George W. Bush assured the public that the instances of torture were isolated, but as the scandal unfolded it became clear that, in the words of an International Committee of the Red Cross official, there was a “pattern and a broad system” of abuse throughout the Department of Defense. Torture techniques, which the CIA and military often referred to as “enhanced interrogation,” had in fact been developed at sites like the Guantanamo Bay detention center and were routinely employed in Iraq, at Guantanamo, and at other “black sites” around the world.

In June of 2004, it was revealed that the Bush Administration—specifically Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo—had not only been aware of widespread torture but had secretly developed a legal defense attempting to exempt the United States from the Geneva Convention. A 2006 court decision subsequently ruled that the Geneva Convention did apply to all aspects of the “War on Terror.” 

Eleven soldiers were eventually convicted by military courts of crimes committed at Abu Ghraib, while Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who had been in charge there, was merely demoted. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apologized for the abuses, but Bush did not accept Rumsfeld’s offer to resign. Yoo went on to teach at Berkeley Law and is a Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In the years after the revelations, legal scholars have repeatedly suggested that Bush, Rumsfeld and soldiers who carried out the abuses at Abu Ghraib could be prosecuted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. 


GE finally initiates cleanup of polluted Hudson River

Month Day
May 15

After decades of environmental damage and legal wrangling, General Electric finally begins its government-mandated efforts to clean the Hudson River on May 15, 2009. One of America’s largest and most prestigious corporations, GE had dumped harmful chemicals into the river for years and spent a fortune trying to avoid the cleanup.

GE’s plants at Hudson Falls and Port Edward, two towns in upstate New York, dumped polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a harmful compound manufactured for GE by Monsanto, into the Hudson from 1947 to 1977. The State of New York banned fishing in the Upper Hudson in 1976 due to the pollution, and in 1984 a roughly 200-mile stretch of the river was declared a Superfund site, requiring GE to pay for the cleanup. Via lawsuits, lobbying efforts, and public relations campaigns, GE fought back until 2002, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced a final decision that the corporation would, in fact, have to foot the bill. Even then, GE dragged its feet for seven years before dredging finally began.

The dredging, which cost GE $1.6 billion, lasted from 2009 until 2015. By all accounts, significant progress was made, and observers have applauded the return of some of the river’s wildlife. Still, few believe that GE truly cleaned up its mess. Despite the removal of 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments, the state has challenged the EPA’s assertion that GE held up its end of the bargain, pointing to studies that show significant levels of PCBs in the Hudson. The state still warns children and those who may bear children against eating fish and other wildlife caught in the Hudson, advising adult men to limit their consumption, as well as counseling citizens to try to avoid swallowing the river’s water.

READ MORE: The Shocking River Fire That Fueled the Creation of the EPA


Radio host Don Imus makes offensive remarks about Rutgers’ women’s basketball team

Month Day
April 04

On April 4, 2007, syndicated talk radio host Don Imus ignites a firestorm after making racially disparaging remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, insulting their appearance and tattoos and, most infamously, calling them “nappy-headed hos.” After a nationwide torrent of criticism, Imus apologized and lost his job but ultimately salvaged his career.

The remarks came during a discussion between Imus, his producer, and a reporter about a game between Rutgers and the University of Tennessee. Activists and journalists began to call for Imus to be fired almost immediately. Imus apologized on his show two days later, calling himself “a good man who did a bad thing,” but numerous sponsors, including General Motors, Staples, and other major companies, pulled their advertising. The Rev. Al Sharpton called for Imus to be “taken off the airwaves,” and Barack Obama, who would become the nation’s first African American president the following January, called Imus’ remarks “divisive, hurtful, and offensive.” MSNBC, which simulcast Imus in the Morning on television, dropped the show on April 11. The following morning, Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, who announced the cancellation of Imus in the Morning that afternoon.

Imus’ defenders—as well as Imus himself—pointed to the frequent use of words like “ho” in rap music as the source of the problem, arguing that Imus was merely using offensive language that was commonplace in the world of hip-hop. Though many commentators decried what they felt was an over-reaction that ruined Imus’ career, Imus was in fact only off the air from April until December. He signed a five-year deal worth $40 million with New York station WABC and returned to the air on December 3. Two years later, Imus in the Morning returned to television, simulcast on Fox Business News. Imus’ career survived the incident, and he retired due to health reasons in 2018.


Barack Obama and Raúl Castro meet in Panama

Month Day
April 11

For the first time in over 50 years, the presidents of the United States and Cuba meet on April 11, 2015. Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, President of Cuba and brother of Fidel Castro, with whom the United States broke off diplomatic contact in 1961, shook hands and expressed a willingness to put one of the world’s highest-profile diplomatic feuds in the past.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower had cut diplomatic ties with Cuba after the Castro-led revolution overthrew a U.S.-backed dictator and installed a regime that was friendly with the Soviet Union. For the next five decades, the U.S. sought to isolate Cuba economically and politically; though it failed to get other nations to join its embargo, it did manage to severely hamstring Cuba’s economic development. Fidel Castro stepped down as president in 2008, the same year that Obama was elected. Early in his administration, Obama signed laws and executive orders that eased the U.S. embargo of Cuba and made it easier for Americans to travel to the island nation. Taking over for his brother, Raúl Castro expressed a willingness to reciprocate, and the two shook hands at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in 2013. That year, officials from the two nations discussed normalizing relations at secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis I in Canada and at the Vatican.

The following April, Castro and Obama met, shook hands, and posed together for photographs in Panama City, Panama. Both leaders stressed their desire to work together, but warned that their meeting was only the beginning of what would have to be a long dialogue. A short time later, the Obama administration removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terror, and the diplomatic relationship was officially re-established in July.

The “Cuban Thaw,” along with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran, the U.S., and its allies, was one of the major foreign policy accomplishments of Obama administration, and as such its reversal was priority for his successor, Donald Trump. The Trump administration has sought to impose more restrictions on Cuba, but it has not ended commercial travel between the two countries, nor has it closed the U.S. embassy in Cuba or asked Cuba to vacate its embassy in Washington, D.C.

READ MORE: How the Castro Family Dominated Cuba for Nearly 60 Years


Facebook launches

Month Day
February 04

On February 4, 2004, a Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg launches The Facebook, a social media website he had built in order to connect Harvard students with one another. By the next day, over a thousand people had registered, and that was only the beginning. Now known simply as Facebook, the site quickly ballooned into one of the most significant social media companies in history. Today, Facebook is one of the most valuable companies in the world, with over 2 billion monthly active users.

The origins of Facebook have been highly scrutinized (including in the critically acclaimed 2010 film The Social Network), but the exact source of the idea remains unclear. What is obvious is that Zuckerberg had twin gifts for coding and causing a stir, both of which served him well at Harvard. The previous year, he had become a campus celebrity by creating FaceMash, a website where students could vote on which of two randomly-selected Harvard women was more attractive, and quickly running afoul of both the administration and several women’s groups. FaceMash was short-lived but wildly popular, leading Zuckerberg to consider the value of creating a campus-wide social network.

Over the course of his sophomore year, Zuckerberg built what would become Facebook. When it launched on February 4, he and his roommates were glued to their screens, watching as an estimated 1,200-1,500 of their fellow students signed up for their site within its first 24 hours of existence. From there, Facebook expanded rapidly, moving to other Boston-area schools and the rest of the Ivy League that spring. By the end of the year, the site had 1 million users, angel investor Peter Thiel had invested $500,000, and Zuckerberg had left Harvard to run Facebook from its new headquarters in California.

From there, Facebook spread across the world, becoming not only an incredibly valuable company but also one of the most important institutions of the early 21st Century. The go-to social media site for a generation of internet users (and one which was readily adopted by older users as it transformed from exclusive to universal), Facebook was one of the major forces that brought the internet into the highly-participatory phase full of user-generated content sometimes referred to as “Web 2.0.” It has also remained controversial. In addition to accusations that it allows false news and fake accounts to proliferate, Facebook has drawn criticism both for selling its users’ data and for failing to adequately protect it. Nonetheless, Facebook continues to dominate the social media market, generating by far the most ad revenue and maintaining over half of the total market share.


“Nipplegate” controversy at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show

Month Day
February 01

A singular event occurred during the halftime show of the Super Bowl on February 1, 2004. While performing a duet with Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake briefly exposed one of her breasts in what was later described as a “wardrobe malfunction.” The performance was airing live all around the world—an estimated 143.6 million people tuned in for all or some of the broadcast —and coincided with the rise of digital video recording and internet technology, as well as a national discussion about technology’s impact on children. As such, “Nipplegate” became one of the most-viewed, most-searched-for, and most-talked-about moments in the history of the internet.

Jackson and Timberlake, along with Jessica Simpson, P. Diddy, Nelly and Kid Rock, performed a lavishly-produced medley of songs. Halftime shows were traditionally conservative affairs, featuring marching bands and family-friendly music, but this changed in the 1990s. Jackson’s brother, the iconic pop star Michael Jackson, had played the halftime show in 1993, proving to the NFL and television executives that high-powered pop performances could dramatically increase ratings and ad revenue.

During the final song, “Rock Your Body,” Timberlake and Jackson danced suggestively. They claimed that the show was supposed to culminate in Timberlake ripping off Jackson’s bodice to reveal her red lace bra as he sang the final line, which included the lyric, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.” Instead, the bra fell away with the rest of the bustier, and the prophecy of the lyrics was fulfilled.

Jackson immediately moved to cover herself up, and CBS immediately cut away; her breast was exposed on television for less than a second. Many speculated, and continue to assert, that either Timberlake, Timberlake and Jackson acting together, or the event’s producers themselves had exposed her breast on purpose as a publicity stunt.

The Federal Communications Commission received 540,000 complaints about the incident, 65,000 of which came from a single organization, the Parents Television Council. Coming as it did at a time when the right-wing “family values” movement was still a major presence in American culture, and amid a growing paranoia that the internet and mass media were exposing children to inappropriate content, “Nipplegate” caused a sensation that lasted months. Viacom, CBS’ parent company, received the maximum fine the FCC could issue for such offenses, and paid $3.5 million to settle indecency complaints about the broadcast.


13 coal miners are trapped in Sago Mine disaster; 12 die

Month Day
January 02

An explosion rocks the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia on January 2, 2006. 13 coal miners were trapped, and all but one eventually died. The tragedy, exacerbated by false reports that 12 of the miners had been rescued, brought scrutiny upon the media, the company that owned the mine and the administration of then-president George W. Bush.

The explosion occurred early in the morning of January 2, as two groups of miners entered the mine. The cave-in trapped the first group of 13 inside the mine, and the group behind them soon found the air too contaminated with carbon monoxide for them to attempt a rescue. According to the account of the lone survivor, Randal McCloy, Jr., the trapped miners were equipped with emergency oxygen “rescuers,” but several of them failed to function. As crews above tried and failed to locate the miners, those trapped took emergency action to shield themselves from the fumes but were eventually overcome. McCloy recalled the group praying together and writing letters to their loved ones as, one by one, they lost consciousness.

When rescuers finally reached the miners over 40 hours after the explosion, they found McCloy in critical condition and the others dead. He was rushed to a hospital, where he remained unconscious for days. The source of the rumors is still unknown, but it was widely reported that 12 miners had survived, prompting newspapers and networks across the country to spread the false story of a “miracle.” The national media had quickly descended upon Sago, with CNN’s Anderson Cooper Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera filming live from outside the mine, and locals later accused the national media of inflicting emotional damage by running with unverified reports.

Just as the source of the false news has not been identified, the cause of the explosion has never been determined. Some believe a lightning strike or seismic activity was to blame, while others suspect sparks from the re-starting of equipment after the New Year’s holiday ignited the explosion. Multiple investigations and hearings sought to determine who was responsible, with many focusing on the fact that the Bush Administration had staffed regulatory positions with former lobbyists and executives from the coal industry. In particular, critics blamed former mining executive Dave Lauriski, Bush’s appointee to lead the Mining Health and Safety Administration, who had struck down a proposed rule requiring mines to maintain two functioning escapeways at all times. In the wake of the Sago tragedy, West Virginia quickly passed a law mandating multiple escapeways. 


Apple launches iTunes, revolutionizing how people consume music

Month Day
January 09

On January 9, 2001, Apple launches iTunes, a media player that revolutionized the way people consumed digital media.

Bill Kincaid and Jeff Robbin, two former Apple employees, developed an MP3 player called SoundJam MP in the late 1990s. In 2000, Apple re-hired them and their partner, Dave Heller, to work on a similar player that would come standard with Apple computers. The first version of iTunes debuted early the next year, on the cusp of a new era in digital entertainment.

Along with the iPod, the MP3 player Apple released later in 2001, iTunes revolutionized the music industry, providing consumers with a simple, portable way of listening to a large library of music. Sleek and focused on a simplified user experience, iTunes made it easy for users to burn CDs and to manage digital music files. Apple founder Steve Jobs is credited with iTunes’ success as a music marketplace. Seeing that music was easier to access than ever, but that record labels were losing money due to internet piracy, Jobs made a deal with the five major record labels to sell their content via iTunes. The fact that it was above-board and profitable for the music industry, combined with the cultural cache of its companion product, the iPod, made iTunes an unqualified success.

The iTunes store soon became one of the internet’s premier marketplaces not only for music but also for music videos, TV shows, movies, apps and podcasts. Artists recorded exclusive singles and released albums early on iTunes, and the iTunes Music Festival was a popular annual attraction from 2007 until 2016. As the iPhone, released in 2007, overtook the iPod as Apple’s marquee product, the iTunes store remained prominent, but subscription-based streaming services like Spotify began to challenge iTunes itself. Responding to this shift, Apple launched Apple Music, which was compatible with but separate from iTunes, in 2015. On June 3, 2019, Apple announced iTunes would not be included in the latest version of its Mac operating system. 

Though the age of pay-per-song downloads may have ended, there is no question that iTunes had a major impact on music. The program turned what was more or less a black market into a vital organ of the music industry, and its crisp, user-friendly format changed the way people consume digital audio and video content.


“Gangnam Style” becomes the first YouTube video to reach one billion views

Publish date:
Month Day
December 21

On December 21, 2012, the music video for “Gangnam Style,” a song by the Korean rapper Psy, becomes the first YouTube video to garner one billion views. The video’s global popularity is a case study in the power and unpredictability of viral internet content.

Psy had been well-known in Korea for a decade, earning awards and acclaim as well as a reputation for controversy. Though Korean pop music, or K-pop, was increasingly popular outside of South Korea, Psy was not an international star until “Gangnam Style.” Released on July 15, 2012 as the lead single to his album Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1, the video would make him a global sensation.

“Gangnam Style” is a send-up of “posers and wannabes” Psy observed in Seoul’s fashionable Gangnam District. Though the lyrics are humorous, it was the video that made the song a sensation beyond Korea. Psy and others perform the “invisible horse” dance, in which the singer pretends to ride a horse and occasionally toss a lasso, in a variety of locations including a stable, a bus, a tennis court and other locales around Seoul. The iconic dance, the memorable chorus of “Hey sexy lady!” and the general over-the-top nature of the video caught the attention of a global audience.

The likes of T-Pain, Britney Spears and Katy Perry noticed the video and drew attention to it on social media. By the end of August, it was garnering over 3 million YouTube views a day, and in December it reached its unprecedented 1 billionth view.

Like other viral videos, “Gangnam Style” inspired countless parodies, reaction videos, and flash mobs. Athletes, television personalities and even politicians—U.S. Representative John Lewis recorded a video of himself doing the dance, and then-Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron reportedly performed it along with future PM Boris Johnson at a conference—joined in the viral craze. Though no longer the most-watched video on YouTube, “Gangnam Style” was an inescapable cultural phenomenon, serving as an introduction to K-pop for millions around the world and as a lasting example of internet virality.


U.S. declares an end to the War in Iraq

In a ceremony held in Baghdad on December 15, 2011, the war that began in 2003 with the American-led invasion of Iraq officially comes to an end. Though today was the official end date of the Iraq War, violence continued and in fact worsened over the subsequent years. The withdrawal of American troops had been a priority of President Barack Obama, but by the time he left office the United States would again be conducting military operations in Iraq.

Five days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush announced the “War on Terror,” an umbrella term for a series of preemptive military strikes meant to reduce the threat terrorism posed to the American homeland. The first such strike was the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, which began a war that continues to this day.

Throughout 2002, the Bush Administration argued that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was allied with terrorists and developing “weapons of mass destruction.” By all accounts, Hussein was responsible for many atrocities, but there was scant evidence that he was developing nuclear or chemical weapons. Behind closed doors, intelligence officials warned the case for war was based on conjecture—a British inquiry later revealed that one report’s description of Iraqi chemical weapons had actually come from the Michael Bay-directed action movie The Rock. The governments of the U.S. and the U.K., however, were resolute in their public assertions that Hussein posed a threat to their homelands, and went ahead with the invasion.

The invasion was an immediate success insofar as the coalition had toppled Hussein’s government and occupied most of Iraq by mid-April. What followed, however, was eight years of insurgency and sectarian violence. American expectations that Iraqis would “greet them as liberators” and quickly form a stable, pluralistic democracy proved wildly unrealistic. Though the coalition did install a new government, which took office in 2006, it never came close to pacifying the country. Guerilla attacks, suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices continued to take the lives of soldiers and civilians, and militias on both sides of the Sunni-Shia divide carried out ethnic cleansings.

The American public remained skeptical of the war, and many were horrified at reports of atrocities carried out by the military and CIA. Leaked photos proved that Americans had committed human rights abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, and in 2007 American military contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. Opposition to the war became an important talking point in Obama’s bid for the presidency.

On New Year’s Day 2009, shortly before Obama took office, the U.S. handed control of the Green Zone—the Baghdad district that served as coalition headquarters—to the Iraqi government. Congress formally ended its authorization for the war in November, and the last combat troops left the following month. Even by the lowest estimates, the Iraq War claimed over 100,000 lives; other estimates suggest that the number is several times greater, with over 205,000 civilian deaths alone.

Over the next three years, ongoing sectarian violence blossomed into a full-out civil war. Many of the militias formed during the Iraq War merged or partnered with extremist groups in neighboring Syria, itself experiencing a bloody civil war. By 2014 the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which absorbed many of these groups, controlled much of Syria and Iraq. The shocking rise of ISIL led Obama to launch fresh military actions in the region beginning in June of 2014. Though ISIL has now been driven out of Iraq and appears to be very much diminished, American troops are still on active duty in Iraq, 16 years after the initial invasion and eight years after the official end of the Iraq War.

READ MORE: The War on Terror: A Timeline