How and Why the Media Misses the Af-Pak Story
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Q: Please supply more detail on what you call the Rendon Group’s “padding the truth” and “neutering journalists” to ensure a “military-friendly and subservient media” in Afghanistan.
A: An August 29, Stars and Stripes story titled “Army used profiles to reject reporters” reported that the U.S. military used secret profiles to deny disfavored reporters access to American fighting units and influence press coverage in order to guarantee that only favorable stories would be written about their operations. If your intel experts are already admitting that they can’t trust their own intel and need independent news reports to get down to the ground truth, then what you’re doing by filtering out the bad news is polluting your only valid system for gaining information at the source.
Again we’re back to assumptions. Does the U.S. military really think that a journalist, screened and approved by a public relations firm hired by the U.S. military and escorted into the field alongside U.S. military units is going to be one hundred percent objective? This was an enormous issue for us when we went to Kabul in 1981 and again in 1983 with Roger Fisher. We had to constantly fight to get clear of the communist government’s censorship and control. We had to get the foreign minister’s pledge on tape that we would not be censored or stopped from filming what we wanted on the streets of Kabul and still had to fight the censor when we left. It almost became an international incident. And then we were repeatedly challenged by CBS and ABC whether what we saw had been sanitized for our benefit by the communists. So we caught flak at both ends of the job at the time. It’s tough to maintain your integrity and stick to the story, but that’s what you’re supposed to do as a journalist and you take the consequences. But I don’t see that kind of standard being applied to reporters embedded with the U.S. military today. In fact, we get the impression that if you’re not embedded, you’re somehow disloyal or not getting the story right. And that’s just 180 degrees from where American journalism should be.
It’s the kind of psychological approach more akin to what the Soviets demanded of their journalists back in the 70s and 80s. They were expected to tow the party line or face expulsion from the privileged ranks. The U.S military already has a problem with self-serving intelligence as well as a marked inability to tell friend from foe or fact from fiction. Pressuring reporters to embed only adds to a system already sickened by its own self-created narrative and dooms the war effort to failure. Things were supposed to get better under the Obama administration, not worse. But the Rendon Group’s practice of grading potential embedded journalists is not a change we can believe in.
Q: Speaking of PR, you reference the rather infamous US Information Agency effort to train Afghans in journalism at Boston University. How did this program come about? How was it flawed? Were there other, similar ones?
A: The main program was run out of the School of Public Communication at BU and spearheaded by Dean Joachim Maitre, who was a defector from the East German Air Force. This was done under the leadership of John Silber, who had come to BU from Texas and turned the left-liberal orientation of the university into a flagship for a pro-business right wing ideology. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hesb-i-Islami was the primary beneficiary of the program. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan represented a field day for this group and BU acted as a kind of incubator. We found that a lot of the exile community had been brought in to service the anti-Soviet narrative, but no objective analysis of what was really going on was being done.