[sixties-l] Close Enough to Count the Casualties (fwd)

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Date: Mon Apr 08 2002 - 03:16:30 EDT

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    Date: Sun, 07 Apr 2002 22:55:55 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Close Enough to Count the Casualties

    Close Enough to Count the Casualties



    By Betty Medsger
    Special to Poynter.org

    The death of Daniel Pearl, the 10th journalist killed in the current war,
    has caused a collective grief among many journalists, even among people who
    didn't know him. After waiting for his freedom for more than a month, there
    is a sense of profound loss at learning he is dead rather than about to be
    released. We are angry at the particularly malicious way he was killed.
    After our outrage loses its first raw edge over this loss in our
    international community of journalists, Pearl's death is a harsh reminder
    that this war, compared to earlier wars, is different for journalists. It
    is different not only because of the dangerous threat of walking into traps
    like those Pearl walked into in pursuit of a story. It is also different
    because of the new rules of war coverage that the U.S. government, --the
    cradle of the First Amendment and free press values heralded by the U.S.
    government around the world-- has imposed.
    Wars often have had a profound impact on journalism, deepening trends in
    journalism or starting new trends. For instance, the seeds of the new wave
    of investigative reporting that became strong in the late 1970's were
    planted not at Watergate but in the rice paddies of Vietnam. Bob Woodward
    and Carl Bernstein arrived as young reporters in the early 1970's in ground
    already made fertile by numerous Vietnam war reporters who went beyond
    being the willing lap dogs of the military to becoming questioning
    watchdogs about the war. New trends were established during the Gulf War.
    That war in early 1991 was a time when the military, prepared by its 1980's
    marketing classes in how to sell a war, set new restrictions and higher
    levels of censorship that guaranteed coverage would be controlled by the
    military. Another trend started with that war. It was covered by broadcast
    outlets in superficial ways that made it seem more like a video game than a
    war. When the war was over in a few weeks, the trend toward news as
    entertainment had started with a vengeance and would remain in place
    throughout the '90's, bringing us ever more superficial and sensational
    coverage of government.
    What will this new war do to journalism? Are trends already evident?

    The marketing practices honed by the Pentagon in the brief Gulf War now
    seem to be the standard M.O. of the military in this war:

    --Because Americans don't like the dark side of war, do everything to
    prevent them from seeing the dark side of war, such as the bodies of
    innocent civilians mistakenly assumed to be the enemy or simply
    accidentally killed or injured when clinical strikes weren't planned or
    executed well;
    --When characterizing the war, make the public feel good about it by always
    describing the glass as half full rather than half empty;
    --Manage bad news by at first denying it, then by restricting access to the
    truth, then by acknowledging that something slightly bad happened, then by
    describing it as an isolated and, therefore, unimportant incident that is
    inevitable "in the fog of war," then let it dribble out "in controlled
    seepage" over days or weeks so the fullness of the bad news never appears
    in one big significant breaking news story.

    These marketing strategies for selling war were described by retired
    U.S. Army Col. William Darryl Henderson in his book, "The Hollow Army: How
    the U.S. Army is Oversold and Undermanned," and in his analysis of the Gulf
    War in the San Francisco Examiner.
    Though public relations strategies were used in previous wars, extreme
    information control tactics were a reaction to the Vietnam war, wrote
    Henderson. That war failed, went the reasoning, because the military failed
    to sell it to the American people - lost control of information about the
    war. If people had not seen all those soldiers coming home in body bags, if
    they had not heard the weekly reports of how many soldiers were killed, if
    they had not seen the war on television nightly and had not read newspaper
    stories that raised questions about aspects of the war --- if all these
    things had not taken place, the outcome would have been different. The U.S.
    would have won the war, according to that reasoning. People would have
    remained confident, not confused, about the war. They never would have
    turned against the war.
    That rationale lead to this conclusion: journalists lost the Vietnam war,
    and we will never let that happen again.
    During the Gulf War, the only-good-news approach was taken to such extremes
    that the Pentagon even reversed the longstanding practice of permitting
    journalists to photograph flag-draped coffins of war dead as they were
    returned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Arguing then in federal court
    in Washington, D.C., for the military when journalists asked to be
    permitted to take such photographs, long regarded as important public
    information that honored those who had given their lives for their country,
    a Justice Department lawyer said that if the military wanted to exclude the
    press, in this case, photographers photographing coffins containing war
    dead, in order to build support for the war, then "I submit there's
    absolutely nothing wrong with that."
    Today's war is far more complex than the Gulf War was, beginning with the
    fact that the Gulf War lasted only a few weeks, while President Bush has
    suggested that this war might last many years. In retrospect, the Gulf War
    seems like it was a practice session for the next sustained war, this one.
    Though a war is one of the largest and most powerful uses of taxpayer
    money, the military today seems to assume that the public will not mind
    being uninformed about this war, that it will not mind having journalists
    prevented from getting close to the action, prevented from being able to
    photograph the war's victims, accidental and not accidental ones. The
    military wants to filter all news, good and bad.
    Otherwise, it is difficult to understand some of the roadblocks to
    coverage. When Washington Post reporter Doug Struck reached the remote
    Afghan village of Zhawar Feb. 10 to try to determine the truth of a report
    that innocent peasants, not Qaeda leaders, as officials reported, were
    killed there by a CIA Predator drone, the reporter was held at gunpoint.
    The soldier who held him at gunpoint, and who would not identify himself,
    according to Struck, called his commander to report the presence of the
    journalist and was told to tell Struck he would be shot if he went further.
    In another attempt to control the news about the war, the Pentagon at first
    denied that allied soldiers wrongly imprisoned friendly Afghans and then
    tortured them by walking on their backs and breaking their ribs. Writing
    about that incident, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, a strong
    supporter of the war, wrote on Feb.12, "It is one thing to fight the
    enemy. It is quite another to fight like him." Cohen said the imprisonment
    may have been a mistake, but the torture was a war crime. In other actions
    that prevented firsthand coverage, journalists occasionally have been
    herded into buildings and detained there for hours in order to prevent them
    from being eye witnesses to U.S.-initiated military attacks.
    These attempts to control the flow of information have left many
    journalists few options, either suppress their professional responsibility
    to provide the public with information it needs in order to judge the
    progress of the war or take great risks in order to get such information.
    In addition to information policies increasing the risks of journalists who
    want to remain faithful to their commitment to the public's need to know, a
    significant change in the nature of fighting --greater dependency on an air
    war-- also has increased the risks involved in covering this war. By being
    dependent on an air war, the number of Americans soldiers killed is likely
    to continue to be greatly reduced, compared to the number likely to be
    killed in a ground war. While there have been claims that this also means a
    substantial increase in the number of innocent civilians that are likely to
    be killed, little attention has been paid to the fact that greater reliance
    on air power probably means there will be a disproportionate increase in
    the number of journalists who will be killed. The record so far supports
    that claim. In the first five months of this war, more journalists than
    soldiers were killed -- two allied soldiers, 10 journalists.
    Journalists cannot cover war from the air. Under current U.S. practices,
    war can be invisible to those who fight. It cannot, however, be invisible
    to those who cover it. Unlike modern soldiers, modern journalists must be
    on the ground. What journalists don't see, they cannot reliably report. To
    report what happened, journalists must be where the bombs fall, where the
    intended targets are hit, or missed, where the victories and defeats take
    place. This means that, try as the military might, to keep journalists from
    seeing the damage, collateral or other, they will not be able to prevent
    all journalists from trying to see for themselves --as opposed to hearing
    from the mouths of press room-bound spokespeople or the Secretary of
    Defense -- the answers to that essential and constant question: What happened?
    Ironically, the journalists of today who cover this war may be burdened
    with these imposed added risks and government controls because of the good
    practices of the journalists who covered the Vietnam war. When the Vietnam
    war was well under way, a few journalists broke loose from herd journalism
    and asked tough questions, and eventually more and more journalists asked
    tough questions. The answers, when added up over years, led to the public
    seeing that the government --Pentagon and various administrations-- had
    engaged in deceit and worse in the conduct of the war.
    Instead of learning democratic lessons from that history, lessons that
    reasonably could lead to a rationale for being as open as possible about
    the conduct of war, today's military leaders studied the Vietnam war and
    drew from the results a determination to prevent journalists from knowing
    enough to ask the kinds of questions that could lead to public debate about
    the next war, this war. Secrecy, even at the cost of credibility, is
    becoming even more ingrained now than then.
    In such an atmosphere, the risks will increase, the risks for democracy --
    the risks for innocent civilians, the risks for journalists. There always
    will be some journalists who think that their commitment to the public
    interest means reporting the war as fully and accurately as possible, no
    matter the risks and no matter how threatening the Pentagon's effort to
    black out news or obfuscate it. These people and their news organizations
    face tough decisions.
    How many civilians have been killed by mistake or simply because they were
    in the way and became collateral damage? Their absence from news reports
    symbolizes the only-good-news policy. Like the proverbial tree that falls
    in the woods, the fact that large numbers of civilians have been killed may
    not be perceived by the public as reality, Pentagon reasoning seems to go,
    if photographers are prevented from getting close enough to photograph or
    count them.
    Betty Medsger is a free lance journalist and journalism education
    consultant living in New York City. She is former chair of journalism at
    San Francisco State University and former reporter for The Washington Post.

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