One casualty of the war on Iraq has been the image of Western media as the exemplar of journalistic accomplishment. For decades, journalists worldwide, in the developing world in particular, looked up to the US press with awe (that word!) and respect, as models of probity, independence, courage and investigative zeal. Watergate was the catchword.
Well, it turns out that they just had not been tested. When the time came for American editors, reporters, studio anchors and producers to stand up to the establishment amid the mass expectation of the public, their feet turned to clay.
The March 30 New York Times had this headline in a piece by David Sanger: “As a Quick Victory Grows Less Likely, Doubts Are Quietly Voiced.” When American politicians and journalists raise doubts “quietly,” what distinguishes them from their peers all over the world, in countries underdeveloped or overdeveloped?
It started after September 11, 2001, when television, press and radio began to ply the American public with what it wanted to hear about the rest of the world. This was then force-fed to the rest of the world. In the run-up to Gulf War II, the American press did not question or caution, at one with the weak-kneed representatives and senators who gave George W. Bush carte blanche to misrepresent his way to war.
Perhaps the worst hour of Western journalism is when its embeds or operatives–hardly journalists–reported on heroics on the desert road to Baghdad, while displaying an unwillingness to present any direct connection between the blazing night sky on television and the death and maiming of civilians on the ground.
To save the sentiments of viewers at home, the channels prefer not to show images of dead, bleeding or destitute people. With its power and reach, Western satellite media dehumanize Arab men, women and children, which is why we do not feel heavier stabs of pain as rockets, cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs explode in inhabited cities.
An Iraqi missile harmlessly hitting a Kuwaiti shopping center received far more airtime than dozens of dead in a Baghdad market. Armored columns were hailed for the speed with which they rushed through the empty desert. American public relations generals talk down to reporters so submissive that it reminds one of the government press in tinpot dictatorships.
It seems time to cast aside America as media role model. American journalists are acting no differently from journalists in repressive societies when they cower before the vehement beliefs of the ruling elite. Fear of being labeled unpatriotic forces US reporters to toe the line, the same way it happens in, say, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Thailand…or Iraq.
As the contradictions and hypocrisy of the American media continue to unfold on television screens and downloaded articles worldwide, no one need feel any sense of superiority. For it is a tragedy when the tutor is found wanting. No one should presume to claim a moral ground higher than the reporters so thankfully picking up morsels thrown their way by Centcom.
The times call for humility–journalists everywhere have their insecurities and inadequacies. As we watch television reporters and anchors make a mockery of their craft, the only respectable response is to search within ourselves, and our motives, every time we file a story. With the Western ideal so blatantly exposed, we must now live in a world where we establish our own standards and then live up to them.