Saturday, September 20, 2003

Some of the US forces' lapses in Iraq, e.g., failing to protect the priceless treasures of the Iraq Museum, bring to mind another that has been pervasive during this war: that the battlefield images watched 24/7 on US television over the past month are confirmation of American 'press freedom’.

Watching these endless battlefield images, I recalled Dan Rather's interview with Gen. Schwartzkopf after the Gulf War. The interview ended with Dan congratulating the General on the splendid job he did, and I remember wondering what kind of journalism was this? When I was in J-School in the 19th century, and later as an AP reporter, the cult of objectivity was at its height. Just the facts, ma'am. Objectivity has decidedly had its downsides, for example, straight-faced reporting on every word uttered by Sen. Joe McCarthy, no matter how outrageous. And the mythology that any reporter can easily approach a story without any intellectual, ideological, cultural, political, or what-have-you baggage. But, on balance, objectivity has served our people well. This was the lesson Dan Rather forgot. It was the same lesson all of us have recently also found ourselves being seduced to forget.

We all criticize the Arab media for being state-owned and state-controlled -- mere mouthpieces for governments that are, by and large, just as much despotic police states as Iraq. And we are right. But, ask yourself, how much freedom is enjoyed by a journalist 'embedded' with a US military unit? With very few exceptions, every movement of these men and women is controlled by the movements of the units they are attached to.

So we were told that we were seeing what war really is like. Maybe so, but we were seeing it (a) because of the development of the ubiquitous videophone and (b) entirely from an Anglo-American perspective, in which field commanders, not journalists, made the ground rules.

To digress a bit, there is a constant question that TV producers face: are we doing this or that story because it's really newsworthy, or because we have dramatic pictures? TV has consistently demonstrated that it will opt for the latter just about every time. Keep the eye focused on what the viewer will watch! This is especially disgraceful vis a vis American 'local news' broadcasts -- fixated on fires, rapes, murders, rescued cats, and suchlike.

Back to the battlefield and the 'embedded' ones, and the balance that is always the hallmark of great journalism. That this balance was so abysmally absent was not the fault of the 'embedded'; it was the judgment of network and station -- and print media -- management. Thanks to technology, news media anywhere have access to images from everywhere. These are images that show so-called 'collateral damage' (which has to be one of the most putrid euphemisms of our time). While Pentagon and CentCom briefers were busy incessantly touting the surgical accuracy of our 'smart' weapons, ordinary people were getting atomized by 'smart weapons gone astray'.

The Arab world saw plenty of this -- in fact, it was just about all they saw. This was nothing new for them; it's the diet their governments have always fed them (including many confirmed instances of 'staged' carnage). Which makes non-US media even more lopsided than ours was. But we do not expect Middle East media to be either free or objective. That's what we have a right expect from the American press. So where were they?

There is no doubt that most of these horrendous 'collateral damage' events actually happened. Nor is there much doubt that US media had access to all of it. But, with only a few exceptions, the American media spiked it. What we saw of 'collateral damage' was mostly US soldiers going out of their way to airlift horribly wounded kids to field hospitals.

Doesn't that make the press complicit with the Pentagon and CentCom? Over the past month, the US media has by and large looked and acted like a bunch of cheerleaders for those it is mandated to hold accountable. If we fail to do so, we are no better informed than the people of the police states who we accuse of 'managing' the news (while we continue to provide USAID tax dollars to many of them).

The technology that has made it possible for us to 'experience' war is truly breathtaking, and it's likely to get better in the future. But the critical decisions our media needs to make in the future are human, not technological, decisions. By omission, they can continue to be jingoistic boosters. Or they can try to remember what great journalism is supposed to be about.