---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 07 Apr 2002 22:55:55 -0700
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Close Enough to Count the Casualties
Close Enough to Count the Casualties
HOW MODERN WARFARE AND GOVERNMENT POLICY PUT JOURNALISTS IN PERIL
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
--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
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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