As I chatted with a silver-haired Harvard professor, my blood began to simmer.
The subject was journalists wrapped in red, white and blue: Dan Rather's pledge to "line up" to serve the president; CNN anchor Aaron Brown's schoolboy gushing about the "wonderful technology in play" as bombs fell on Afghanistan; a Florida newspaper editor's instructions to downplay the deaths of Afghan civilians; columnist Michael Kelly's labeling of "pacifist" American war critics as "evil" and "objectively pro-terrorist"; just about anything that comes out of Bill O'Reilly's mouth.
When journalists compete to be the most patriotic, I said to the professor, when they fail to look critically at the facts on the ground, when they equate questions about policy with national disloyalty, or worse -- how are they any different from the functionaries of state-run media? As a citizen not of a totalitarian state but of a democracy, don't you have a right to know what's being done in your name?
The professor pursed his lips and shrugged. "Why are you surprised?" he responded with a practiced calm. "The press has always been a tool of propaganda during wartime."
The hyper patriotism of the day is understandable, given the fear and anger still churning from September's tragedy. But when news organizations succumb to these emotions, when journalists wear the colors (or display them in logos on the evening news), judgment is clouded, facts are ignored, and the public is denied the essential contribution of the free press in a democracy: the ability to make informed decisions based on the facts.
Take the case of civilian deaths from the bombings in Afghanistan. A careful reading of American newspapers finds repeated instances in which dozens, even hundreds, of civilians have been killed by US bombs. A University of New Hampshire professor, culling reports from the front, estimates the total death toll at more than 4,000. If true, this exceeds the number killed here on Sept. 11.
Yet, the stories coming from Afghanistan are largely of liberation and chaotic joy. The bombings are often covered as "collateral" damage that "happens in war". Other times, Pentagon denials coming out of Washington are given equal credibility with eyewitness reports from anti-Taleban villagers on the ground; the story dissolves into a false balance of he-said, she-said. Unlike in Europe, the US press rarely focuses on the growing rage over bombs falling on civilians. It's as if such rage doesn't exist.
But how else do we explain that, in early December, the British journalist Robert Fisk was nearly beaten to death by bombed-out Afghan refugees just inside the Pakistani border? Their fury led Fisk to conclude, in a courageous piece filed shortly after escaping with his life, that had he been in their position, "I would have done just what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."
It's not as if American news outlets need to reach Fisk's controversial conclusions. Balanced reporting that considers the consequences of bombing densely populated areas from 20,000 feet would do. No doubt, there have been many fine, courageous reports filed from the field under difficult circumstances. But some equate criticism of the war, and honest witness to the suffering of "the others", with disloyalty.
Kelly, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, long considered a beacon of free thought, wrote that opponents of the war -- whom he lumps together as "pacifists" -- "are on the side of future mass murders of Americans". What kind of America is this? Since when is speaking your mind tantamount to treason?
We in the press must have the courage to fight for a vigorous, open, democratic exchange, not be laying the groundwork for loyalty oaths reminiscent of the McCarthy era. But press patriotism is popular and profitable, while skepticism is not: even the scant use of on-air critics has been met with hate mail from an intolerant public, and the publisher of The Sacramento Bee was booed off stage during a commencement speech for expressing her concerns over civil-liberties issues.
Ten years ago, at the end of the Gulf War, it became clear that the image of the war as a bloodless "video game" -- missiles hitting military targets precisely -- was largely an illusion fostered by the Pentagon and readily played into by the networks. In fact, subsequent reports have made it clear that missiles missed their targets, many civilian areas were hit, and the war, and the sanctions that followed, helped create a humanitarian and public-health crisis.
As the United States considers another confrontation with Iraq, the importance of on-the-ground witness -- of doing a better job than last time -- will be as important as ever. And, given the climate, even more difficult.
At a meeting with journalists after the Gulf War, I asked a top network executive whether, looking back, he thought he had been used by the Pentagon. He acknowledged he did. I then asked him: Do you have any plans to put safeguards in place so this doesn't happen again? He answered in the negative, firmly, to the shock of my colleagues.
The stakes are too high to let that be the final word.
The writer is an independent journalist and radio documentary producer.
Source: The Jordan Times.