News and Features
The press conference that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held shortly after the United States began bombing Afghanistan on October 7 was painful to behold. The questions posed by reporters tended to be either trivial--Did the B-2s involved in the mission depart from the United States?--or thoughtless. Since September 11 Rumsfeld had repeatedly said that he would not divulge any information that might endanger ongoing operations, but that did not stop reporters from trying to elicit it. CNN's Jamie McIntyre, for instance, kept demanding to know whether the United States planned to send ground troops into Afghanistan. Rumsfeld did his best to ignore him, but, as McIntyre persisted, the Secretary finally fixed him with an icy stare and said, "We don't discuss operational details."
The briefing reminded me of the famous Saturday Night Live sketch aired during the Persian Gulf War, in which reporters--despite being warned not to ask about matters that could aid the enemy--posed questions like, "What date are we going to start the ground attack?" and "Where are our forces most vulnerable to attack?" The sketch captured the public's disdain for the media's mindless aggressiveness and reinforced the first Bush Administration's inclination to restrict the flow of information about the war.
Now, with a new conflict upon us, the second Bush Administration seems intent on imposing similar controls. "Although the administration says it is not engaged in censorship," Elisabeth Bumiller reported in the New York Times, "officials throughout the government readily say they have been ordered to be circumspect about their remarks." This is certainly troubling. Without access to battle sites and timely information, the press--whatever its faults--will have a hard time assessing the success of US actions. Accordingly, US news organizations have been pushing the Pentagon to be more open.
That seems unlikely to happen, however. As during the Gulf War, the public seems to support the Administration's approach. Rather than sit around and grumble, though, reporters and editors should rededicate themselves to the real task at hand, which is providing the fullest possible coverage of the complicated new era we have entered. That, in turn, requires journalists to show such qualities as independence, enterprise and, yes, courage. Regardless of how much information the government provides, the press must pose uncomfortable questions, challenge broadly held assumptions and solicit opinion from a wide range of sources.
There are some hopeful signs. During the Gulf War, the press uncritically accepted Pentagon assertions about the accuracy of its missiles. Postwar studies showed those claims to be vastly exaggerated, and many journalists felt burned. A month into the current conflict, some journalists have shown their determination to avoid a repeat. Thus, after the Rumsfeld briefing, Richard Hawley, a former US general turned ABC news consultant, told Peter Jennings that in bombing Afghanistan, the United States was using precision-guided weapons so as to avoid "collateral damage." Jennings immediately pounced. During the Gulf War, he observed, generals "repeatedly talked about precision-guided weapons, and they turned out to be anything but precise. How much better is it now?" Hawley said that US missiles now have GPS-aided navigational devices that make for "far fewer stray rounds." Whether that's so remains to be seen, of course, but the exchange shows how some journalists, at least, have learned from that past conflict.
The current one, however, offers a host of new challenges, especially in covering the political dimensions of the conflict. And here the press could do much better. To cite one example, the Pentagon revealed on October 7 that in addition to dropping bombs on Afghanistan, it was dropping humanitarian food packages. In all, it said, it was delivering about 37,000 packages. Most news organizations accepted at face value the Pentagon's explanation that this showed America's concern for the well-being of the Afghan people. In all, though, millions of Afghans face starvation, and the next day NPR reported that Doctors Without Borders had condemned the US food drop as "propaganda" and, further, that the bombing had caused the UN World Food Program in Pakistan to suspend its daily shipments of 700 tons of food into Afghanistan. In reporting this, NPR did not rely on handouts from the Pentagon; rather, it went into the field and developed its own sources of information. (In fairness, Washington says it plans to increase greatly the size of its food drops once it is safe to do so.)
Another, more serious example of the press's credulity has been its coverage of the US intelligence services. In light of the failures to predict the September 11 attacks, the press has almost unanimously concluded that the United States needs to beef up its spying abroad and to "unleash" the CIA to fight terrorism. In a piece for The New Yorker, for instance, Seymour Hersh, relying heavily on sources within the US intelligence community, lambasted the CIA for turning away from the rough-and-tumble methods it used during the cold war. "Look," one agent told Hersh, "we recruited assholes. I handled bad guys. But we don't recruit people from the Little Sisters of the Poor--they don't know anything." A piece in the New York Times's Week in Review section echoed Hersh. "The CIA's spies are ill-equipped to fight a dirty war in the world's back alleys," lamented Tim Weiner, who went on to cite the need for American intelligence to rebuild its capacity for "old-fashioned espionage" and satisfy the "urge for covert action to combat an invisible foe."
These articles offered no independent assessments as to how much impact such a buildup could actually have in combating terrorism. Even more troubling, they showed no awareness of the serious costs of past US covert operations, from the Congo to Cambodia to Latin America. This omission seemed especially dismaying in the case of Hersh, who over the years has broken so many stories about clandestine mischief abroad.
Clearly, the United States needs to improve its ability to confront invidious groups like Al Qaeda. We are indeed fighting a new kind of war, and it requires new types of responses. Yet the unthinking acceptance of premises like the need to "unleash" the CIA does not advance the discussion. More than ever, US journalists must avoid the temptation to engage in groupthink and--without seeming reflexively adversarial--must ask sharp questions. In the end, the danger they face is not just censorship, but self-censorship.
Just once more, and
then we'll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could
subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer
rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in
§ The United States of America has been the
patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and
You can probably fill in a few extras for
yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing
if prefaced with the words: "As Osama bin Laden and his devout
followers have recently reminded us..." They wouldn't mean the same
thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn't mean the same
thing morally. It's disgraceful that so many people on the periphery
of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term
instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought
experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to
rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning,
because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was
murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know
all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized
subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned "hit jobs" and
sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient
struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small
help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of
which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto
Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking
sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car
bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of
horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the
dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet
himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law
only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done
to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath
would be inadvisable.
I don't know any Chilean participant
in this great historic struggle who would not rather have
died--you'll have to excuse the expression--than commit an outrage
against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities
in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I'll leave it
at that, since those who don't see my point by now are never going to
There are others who mourn September 11 because it
was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam
were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The
date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making
itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim
civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West,
went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I
think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain
antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And
if I am right, then it's not even facile or superficial to connect
the recent aggression against American civil society with any current
"human rights issue."
Why not pay attention to what the
cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in
which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a
society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the
future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about
this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval
mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are.
Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this
column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly
not. He doesn't only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine;
he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the
spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud
beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools
consider him as the interpreter of their "concerns," let alone seek
to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to
be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this
question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe
a duty to Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible
by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember
that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor
repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection
as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior's vaunted "coalition."
(See especially David Hirst's two engrossing reports from northern
Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself
is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the
region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually
do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original
to attack me for writing from an "armchair." (Why is it always an
armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment
on the top floor of one of Washington's tallest buildings. In the
fall of 1993 the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism
urgently advised me to change this address because of "credible"
threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered
Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at
the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the
government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving
half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a
quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does
not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are
prepared to say the same.
all the programs I've seen on Afghanistan, not one was more chilling
than Beneath the Veil, an hourlong documentary that has
appeared frequently on CNN. Its narrator, Saira Shah, a British woman
of Afghan descent, spent five days in the country to see what life
there was really like. Shah managed to penetrate places few
Westerners get to see, including a secret classroom for girls and a
village that suffered Taliban atrocities. She also visited a Kabul
soccer stadium that, she said, had served as a public execution
ground. To back up her point, the documentary featured a clip of a
man putting a rifle to the head of a woman clad in a burqa and
blowing her brains out. In an interview with the Taliban foreign
minister, Shah asked what he thought the international donors who
gave money for the stadium would say if they knew it was being used
for executions rather than for sports. Well, the minister said, if
they didn't like it, they should give money to build a separate arena
Shah's report captures just how horrendous
life in Afghanistan has become. The Taliban's police-state tactics,
together with its harboring of terrorists, has fed a groundswell of
support for its ouster. That, in turn, has focused new attention on
the Taliban's main opponents, the United Front, or, as it's more
familiarly known, the Northern Alliance. Eager to report on it, US
journalists have swarmed into the sliver of territory the alliance
controls in northeastern Afghanistan, where they're cordially taken
on tours by rebel commanders.
"We're with the troops of the
Northern Alliance," MSNBC's TomAspell reported on September 27. The
alliance, he said, was eager to act as a guide for American forces
entering Afghanistan. CNN's Chris Burns, gesturing toward a mountain
ridge, said, "Thirty miles beyond that, is where Kabul is. And they
say if they had help from the Americans, they could take that city."
Meanwhile, a procession of alliance spokesmen have appeared on TV to
plead for US assistance.
The print media have been no less
accommodating. "Front-line Taliban Foes Eager to Help U.S.," the
New York Times declared on its front page. Reporter David
Rohde described how a Northern Alliance general "swaggered across the
top floor" of a demolished airfield control tower and pointed
southward. "'On the other side of those mountains,' he said, his
voice filled with yearning, 'is Kabul.'" While the alliance did not
pose an immediate military threat to the city, Rohde noted, it did
have "encyclopedic knowledge of the Taliban and its bombing targets,
units and tactics." The Washington Post has run a series of
glowing reports about the alliance and its grit, savvy and
"discipline." That discipline, correspondent Peter Baker noted in one
dispatch, has survived the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah
Massoud, the guerrilla leader who "by sheer force of personality had
managed to hold together this eclectic group of
In death, Massoud has been lionized by the US
press--literally. "The legendary 'Lion of the Panjshir,'" the Los
Angeles Times called him. "A Lion's Death," the New Yorker
declared in a headline atop a one-page eulogy by Jon Lee Anderson. In
1992, Anderson reported, Massoud's "moderately conservative group"
defeated the brutish regime backed by the Soviets, and he served as
defense minister and vice president until 1996, when the Taliban
gained control of most of the country.
Anderson nor the rest of the press has reported is that during their
time in power, Massoud and his fellow warlords ruthlessly fought one
another, reducing much of Kabul to rubble and killing tens of
thousands of people, most of them civilians. According to a
meticulously documented report by Human Rights Watch (Afghanistan:
Crisis of Impunity, available at www.hrw.org), the front "amassed
a deplorable record of attacks on civilians" between 1992 and 1996.
It was the lawlessness and brutality that prevailed under these
warlords that paved the way for the Taliban. Since then, Human Rights
Watch reports, both the Taliban and the United Front "have repeatedly
committed serious violations of international humanitarian law,
including killings of detainees, aerial bombardment and shelling,
direct attacks on civilians, rape, torture, persecution on the basis
of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines."
one of the few departures from the pack, Patricia Gossman noted in a
Washington Post Op-Ed that Afghans have been fleeing Kabul
"not only out of fear of US airstrikes but out of panic that the
[Northern Alliance] might take power there again." Gossman, a writer
whose research has been funded by the US Institute of Peace, wrote
that when she was in Kabul last year, "I was told time and again that
the only thing people there feared more than the Taliban was that the
warlords of the Northern Alliance might return to
Michael Sullivan, in a fine piece for NPR, pointed
out that the Northern Alliance is made up of Afghanistan's ethnic
Tajik and Uzbek minorities, "with only token representation from the
country's ethnic Pashtun majority, who've dominated Afghanistan's
political landscape for most of the country's history." Without
involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having
a stable government in Afghanistan "would be simply impossible." (The
Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)
What accounts for
the media blackout on the United Front's true colors? As Ken
Silverstein observed in an astute piece for Salon, the front's
many abuses "can't be a surprise" to reporters. Since September 11,
he notes, several thousand people, "presumably many of them
journalists," have requested the Human Rights Watch report on
Afghanistan, but "most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically
turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings."
The press may at last be opening its eyes. Time, in
its October 8 edition, offered a balanced piece on the United Front,
referring to its "fractious makeup" and "disappointingly thin"
intelligence. And David Rohde, in another front-page piece in the
Times on the Northern Alliance, used the w-word--warlords--and
described their recruitment of fighters as young as
According to the Times, the Bush Administration
has decided to provide covert aid to several groups opposed to the
Taliban, the United Front included. In light of the urgent need to
root out war criminals like Osama bin Laden, it can be argued that
Washington needs every bit of help it can get. But at the very least,
the American public needs to know whom we are embracing. After all,
it was just a few years ago that the CIA--eager to confront the
Soviets--backed the mujahedeen, including many of the same Taliban
fighters we are now seeking to overthrow.
Labels like "Islam" and "the West" serve only to confuse us about a disorderly reality.
The two related questions before the house are these. Can the attacks
of September 11 be compared to an earlier outrage committed by
Americans? And should they be so compared?
Several individuals have attributed to me certain statements on the issue of the situation known as the "Pacifica Crisis." As I am quite capable of speaking for myself without easy-chai
I have been asked to respond to recent Nation articles by Christopher Hitchens (website, September 24; magazine, Oct.
With the news media playing such a pivotal--and questionable--role during the current crisis, we have asked Michael Massing, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, to comment on the coverage in the coming weeks.
A few minutes into ABC's World News Tonight on September 21--the night after George W. Bush's speech to Congress--Peter Jennings somberly noted that it was "time for all Americans to begin learning more about Afghanistan." I immediately perked up. Since the calamitous events of September 11, the networks had focused heavily on the human and physical toll of the attacks and on the nation's fitful efforts to come to terms with them. And they performed admirably in those initial days, consoling and comforting the public even as they were informing it. But as the days passed, and as the government prepared to strike at Osama bin Laden and his Afghan hosts, the need for some sharp political analysis became urgent, and here, on cue, was Jennings, promising a mini-tutorial.
Leaning forward, I looked expectantly at my TV screen--only to find it filled with the pale, bespectacled face of Tony Cordesman. Cordesman, of course, was a ubiquitous talking head during the Gulf War, and now he was back, holding forth in the same nasal monotone. He dutifully recited some basic facts about Afghanistan--the small size of the Taliban army, the limited number of tanks and aircraft at its disposal, the scarcity of bombing targets on the ground. "The job is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible if you set deadlines and demand instant success," Cordesman burbled. Then he was gone, and the program was back to its ongoing coverage of victims, heroes and terrorists. We learned nothing about the level of support for the Taliban, about the strength of the opposition, about America's long history of involvement in the region.
The segment was typical. As the nation prepares to go to war, the coverage on TV--the primary source of news for most Americans--has been appallingly superficial. Constantly clicking my remote in search of insight, I was stunned at the narrowness of the views offered, at the Soviet-style reliance on official and semiofficial sources. On Meet the Press, for instance, Tim Russert's guests were Colin Powell and (as he proudly announced) the "four leaders of the United States Congress"--Dennis Hastert, Richard Gephardt, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. "How did the events of September 11 change you?" the normally feisty Russert tremulously asked each. Seeking wisdom on the question of Why They Hate Us, Barbara Walters turned to former Bush communications director, now senior White House counselor, Karen Hughes. "They hate the fact that we elect our leaders," Hughes vacuously replied. On NBC, Brian Williams leaned heavily on failed-drug-czar-turned-TV-consultant Barry McCaffrey ("Americans are natural fighters," McCaffrey fatuously informed us), while on The Capital Gang Mark Shields asked former Middle East diplomat Edward Walker, "Can the antiterrorism coalition really count this time on Saudi Arabia?"
To a degree, such deference reflects TV's customary rallying around the flag in times of national crisis. Such a stance is understandable; in light of the enormity of the attack, even atheists are singing "God Bless America." But the jingoistic displays on TV over the past two weeks--the repeated references to "we" and "us," the ostentatious sprouting of lapel flags, Dan Rather's startling declaration that "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where"--have violated every canon of good journalism. They have also snuffed out any whiff of debate and dissent; the discussion taking place within the Bush Administration is no doubt more vigorous than that presented on TV.
But there's more than simple patriotism at work here. The thinness of the coverage and the shallowness of the analysis seem a direct outgrowth of the networks' steady disengagement from the world in recent years. Since the end of the cold war, overseas bureaus have been closed, foreign correspondents recalled and the time allocated to international news sharply pared. Having thus plucked out their eyes, the networks--suddenly faced with a global crisis--are lunging about in the dark, trying desperately to find their footing.
No outlet has seemed more blinkered than CNN. The network that once emulated the BBC has instead become another MSNBC, and while it can still count on Christiane Amanpour to parachute into the world's hot zones, and on the game efforts of such on-the-ground assets as Nic Robertson in Kabul, the network has seemed thoroughly flummoxed by the complex political forces set in motion by the events of September 11. Consider, for instance, that famous brief clip showing a clutch of Palestinians celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center. Within days, word began circulating on the Internet that the footage had actually been shot during the Gulf War. The furor became so great that CNN eventually had to issue a statement describing where it got the tape (from a Reuters cameraman in East Jerusalem who insisted that he had not encouraged the celebration, as some claimed).
The real scandal, though, is that CNN repeatedly showed the clip without commentary, without attempting to place it in the broader context of reactions from the Islamic world. What were people in Gaza and the West Bank actually saying? Where were the interviews with clerics in Cairo, editorial writers in Amman, shopkeepers in Jakarta and schoolteachers in Kuala Lumpur? It was certainly not hard to obtain such views--witness Ian Fisher's sparkling dispatch from Gaza in the New York Times ("In the Gaza Strip, Anger at the U.S. Still Smolders") and Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope's excellent front-page roundup in the Wall Street Journal: "Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them; West Undercuts Islam, They Say, by Backing Israel, Autocratic Mideast Rule."
Not all was bland on CNN. Jeff Greenfield, for one, made some genuine efforts to probe the Islamic world's complex love-hate relationship with the United States. On September 20, for instance, he had a spirited discussion with Afghanistan hands Barnett Rubin of New York University and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, along with Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary. Far more representative,though, was "What Do We Know About Islam?" an exceedingly brief Sunday segment in which a Christian minister and a Muslim cleric offered very vague observations about relations between Christianity and Islam. It was followed by an interview with a Muslim-American who assured us that "Islam means peace." Shot in Boston and New York, the segment drove home how CNN has lost that precious journalistic ability to work the streets of the world and discover what's really taking place there. Given CNN's critical part in keeping the world informed, one can only hope that it will soon regain its bearings.
CNN, regularly derided as 'liberal' by conservative commentators, is only liberal if that word stands for 'somewhat sane.'
It's a slippery slope that these two lawgivers would have us tread.
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