The Corruption of Journalism in Wartime
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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 mine 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 junkies.
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 world 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 nothing.
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.