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Fwd: 6/1/02 Truth of Media Coverage in Afghanistan
by Threehegemons
03 June 2002 22:02 UTC
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Taken from

Featured Views
Published on Saturday, June 1, 2002 by Ted Rall

Meet the Press: The Corruption of Journalism in Wartime
by Ted Rall

                    MADISON, WISCONSIN - When I arrived in Afghanistan
last November, Operation Enduring Freedom-the American
                    bombing campaign that eventually toppled the
Taliban-was being hailed by the U.S. media as an unqualified success.
                    Precision bombing and first-rate intelligence, the
Pentagon claimed, had kept civilian casualties down to a few dozen
                    victims at most. Long-oppressed Afghan women burned
their burqas and walked the streets as the country reveled in
                    an orgy of liberation. Or so we were told.

                    The amount of disjoint between television and
reality was shocking. The "new" Northern Alliance government was no
                    better than the Taliban; with the exception of the
U.S.-appointed former oil-company hacks in charge, they were
                    Talibs. Women still wore their burqas, stonings
continued at the soccer stadium and the bodies of bombing victims
                    piled up by the thousands. Not only was the War on
Terror failing to catch terrorists, it was creating a new generation
                    of Afghans whose logical response to losing their
friends and parents and siblings and spouses and children would be
                    to hate America.

                    Why didn't the truth about the extent of civilian
casualties get out?

                    I blame the journalists, though Lord knows, some of
them tried. As a novice correspondent for The Village Voice and
                    KFI-AM radio in Los Angeles, I carefully studied the
pros. A brilliant war reporter for a big American newspaper-he'd
                    done them all, from Rwanda to Somalia to
Kosovo-filed detailed reports daily from his room down the street from
                    as I charged my electronic equipment on his portable
generator. The next day we'd hook up a satellite phone to a
                    laptop to read his pieces on his paper's website.
Invariably every mention of Afghan civilians killed or injured by
                    American air strikes would be neatly excised. One
day, as a test, he fired off a thousand words about a
                    15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bomb that had taken out
an entire neighborhood in southeastern Kunduz. Hundreds of
                    civilians lay scattered in bits of protoplasm amid
the rubble. His editors killed the piece, calling it "redundant."

                    He was an exception. The TV people, particularly the
big American networks, were the worst. ABC News, for
                    instance, paid $800 for a 12-mile ride from the
Tajik border to the first town in Takhar Province. (The usual rate was
                    50 cents.) The TV guys eased the discomforts of
Fourth World living by throwing around hundreds of thousands of
                    dollars, bribing Northern Alliance warlords to put
them up in their palatial compounds-electricity, hot water, beefy
                    bodyguards, the works-and buying access to places
where news was supposedly taking place. While they were off
                    chasing fictional Osamas in mountain caves at
fantastic expense, American bombs would strike civilian targets in the
                    most obvious of places; only European journos would
show up to cover those horrifying scenes. It never occurred to
                    these well-fed American fools that relying for food,
shelter and protection on the top officers of one side in a civil war
                    might not give them the best vantage point for
unbiased reporting.

                    Here in America, reputable media outlets pride
themselves on refusing to pay for news. That's why Gary Condit
                    couldn't collect a buck for his interview with
Connie Chung. But out in Afghanistan, all bets were off. Broadcast
                    networks paid for interviews, access to battle zones
and even rides into battle in the bowels of armored personnel
                    carriers. Had everyone refused to pay, no one would
have been fleeced. But war is the seventh circle of hell, and
                    breeds such unseemly rat-like behavior among war

                    Their unscrupulous conduct turned all journalists,
whether from NBC or a Portugese radio station, into fat targets for
                    robbery, rape and murder. Because the TV scum had
driven up prices for all reporters, you needed at least $5,000
                    merely to buy food and a room for a few weeks. And
in a nation with an average monthly income of $1.20, anyone
                    who lifted those $5,000 from your bloody money belt
would be set for life. Perhaps only the young soldiers who
                    robbed and murdered 42-year-old Swedish cameraman
Ulf Stromberg in his Taloqan guest house are legally
                    responsible for widowing his wife, but surely the
irresponsible behavior of well-funded TV personnel share the blame.

                    More telling was the ignorance of Afghan war
correspondents about basic facts concerning the war and its Central
                    Asian theater. Of the dozens of journalists I met in
Afghanistan, all were well-versed in the ins and outs of warfare in
                    general, and many were unbelievably brave. But none
had been in-country before, or even visited Central Asia. My
                    mention of Bishkek drew blank stares from a news
crew at the front. "You know, the capital of Kyrgyzstan," I tried.
                    "It's north of here." Nothing. References to other
important Central Asian cities-Ashkhabat, Astana, Kashgar-rang no
                    bells for them.

                    On another occasion I was interviewing Taliban POWs
along with a reporter for a U.S. newspaper chain. "I can't
                    believe that that guy came all the way from Chechnya
," he commented, scribbling away as he gestured towards a
                    square-faced inmate. "He didn't," I said. "He's
Uyghur-a Muslim from western China."

                    "What the hell would a Chinese person be doing
here?" he asked.

                    "Uyghurs are a horribly oppressed minority," I
explained. "They want to break away Xinjiang province from China and
                    form an independent Republic of East Turkestan. The
Taliban supported and trained them. There are lots of those
                    guys here." The writer didn't know that Afghanistan
bordered China, didn't understand the international nature of the
                    Taliban's appeal to jihad and thus misled millions
of Americans with his ill-informed screeds. Even worse, he knew
                    that he couldn't trust his instincts. Though he
never personally witnessed an unveiled woman, for instance, he
                    unquestioningly passed along the Northern Alliance
line that burqas were no longer required. "Maybe it's different in
                    other provinces," he said.

                    It's not that I was any smarter than my fellow
journalists. But I'd done my homework. I'd been to that part of the
                    five times before, and in the process I'd picked up
a lot of useful information: how to tell an Uzbek from a Tajik, why
                    Herat is the coolest city in Afghanistan and how
much it costs to hitch a ride. I knew my way around, I knew how to
                    deal with the locals and I was able to present my
dispatches with a basic understanding of historical, political,
                    cultural and religious contexts. My peers from the
networks and the big papers, on the other hand, were used to
                    flying around the world from one trouble spot to the
next-and it showed in their inch-deep reports.

                    "Aren't you going to the press conference?" was a
question that greeted me whenever I chose to skip General
                    Mohammed Daoud's morning propaganda briefing. What's
the point of standing around, waiting to be lied to? More
                    often than not, the most reliable information could
be discovered by talking to newly-arrived refugees in the local
                    bazaar. Instead the other journalists squandered day
after day-they'd attend the damned briefings, bitch about them
                    afterwards, but go ahead and report Daoud's lies.
Most had to know it was Grade-A BS, but they had to file
                    something, and detailed dissembling was better than

                    I would have done the same thing if I'd been
assigned to cover a place I knew nothing about.

                    A century ago the press employed salaried bureau
chiefs to sit around places like Kabul and La Paz in the
                    expectation that something newsworthy might someday
go down. It was expensive, but it worked; reports filed by
                    long-term residents were smarter and truer than
today's journalism-by-press-release. Decades of budget cuts by the
                    corporate-chain media outlets have eliminated such
"luxuries," but in fact posting overseas correspondents might well
                    provide substantial savings. For example, someone
who'd been living in Afghanistan would know not to pay $800 for a
                    four-bit ride.

                    Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his
recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and
                    Back," is out now. Ordering and review-copy
information are available at nbmpub.com.
                                                  Common Dreams
                              A non-profit news service providing
breaking news & views for the progressive community.
                                          Copyrighted 1997-2001
www.commondreams.org A 'Cookie-Free' Website

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