The World's Crisis in War Reporting
At this complex and dangerous moment in history, we must recognize that journalists around the world are failing in their duty as watchdogs of the people and that – combined with economic stresses – the traditional role of journalism is diminishing.
As journalists are laid off and newspapers cut back or shut down, whole sectors of our civic life disappear from public view and go dark. Much of local and state governments, whole federal departments, and the world itself are neglected.
Politicians are working increasingly without independent scrutiny and without public accountability. Perhaps most alarmingly, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against terrorism abroad go underreported despite the billions of dollars spent and the tens of thousands of lives lost.
And it often isn’t much better when the major U.S. news media does provide saturation coverage. During President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, American journalists – with only a few exceptions – failed to respond, first, to the challenge of scrutinizing the case for war and, then, to the political and military failures during the war.
At times the U.S. media’s coverage made one think that the Pentagon could have skipped the middlemen and simply supplied the news feeds itself.
In those first heady days of the conflict, “embedded” journalists excitedly broadcast green-tinted, night-vision action footage as they traveled on U.S. Army personnel carriers racing through the Iraqi desert.
Meanwhile, cable networks MSNBC and Fox News superimposed waving American flags on news scenes from Iraq and ran special packages of patriotic war images with stirring music and heroic titles.
These Madison Avenue-style promos were, in effect, pro-war advertisements featuring footage of brave U.S. troops and happy Iraqis, while showing no blood-stained images, no overflowing hospitals, no terrified children, no grieving mothers. At MSNBC, the promos ran under slogans, such as “Home of the Brave” and “Let Freedom Ring.”
For its part, CNN offered its American domestic audience more positive coverage of the war than was presented to its global viewers on CNN International, which was more dispassionate and less jingoistic. CNN, like Fox and MSNBC, apparently understood that uncritical flag-waving reporting was a sure-fire route to higher ratings and a way to avoid ugly accusations about lacking patriotism.
The journalistic principle of “objectivity” was casually cast aside.
Consider what happened to intrepid war correspondent Peter Arnett when he dared to report accurately about U.S. military reversals during the early days of the war.
When Arnett told an Iraqi TV interviewer that Iraqi military resistance was stiffer than U.S. military planners had expected, he was promptly fired by NBC and kicked off its MSNBC affiliate. [For more details on Iraq War coverage, see Consortiumnews.com’s “America’s Matrix.”]
Objectivity’s Sliding Scale
Inside the profession of journalism, there has long been a debate about what “objectivity” really is and how it should be applied, especially in war time.
As a principle, objectivity can mean many things to many people. To some, it simply instructs journalists to put aside their personal prejudices when reporting a story. To others, it restricts journalists to antiseptic writing that simply records “the two sides” without endeavoring to figure out which side is factually correct or who has the better of the argument.
However, actual enforcement of the rule is usually reserved for reporters who are so moved by a story they are covering that they risk going against the grain of the establishment’s conventional wisdom and show passion in reporting some injustice that the powers-that-be would prefer that the public not know much about.
This double standard meant that amid the patriotic fervor surrounding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, there was almost no talk within the mainstream news media about the demonstrable lack of objectivity displayed by American journalists and news outlets that cheered on the invasion.
Being on the U.S. side was considered almost a requirement for American journalists, objectivity be damned.
Precedents on Hypocrisy
This shedding of professional journalistic standards was, of course, not unique to the Iraq War.
During World War II, when the struggle against Germany and Japan seemed as close to a worldwide crusade against evil as any war ever fought, war correspondents often engaged in self-censorship, putting their view of national interest ahead of telling the story as they saw it. Even the best war reporting reflected the reporter’s support of the war effort.
Charles Lynch, a Canadian journalist accredited to the British Army for Reuters, wrote three decades after the war:
“It is humiliating to look back at what we wrote during the war. It was crap – and I don’t exclude the Ernie Pyles or the Alan Mooreheads. We were a propaganda arm of our governments. At the start the censors enforced that, but by then we were our own censors.
“We were cheerleaders. I suppose there wasn’t an alternative at the time. It was total war. But for God’s sake, let’s not glorify our role. It wasn’t good journalism. It wasn’t journalism at all.”
In his seminal work on war reporting, The First Casualty, Philip Knightly echoed this attitude: “It remains hard to reach any conclusion other than that the war could have been better reported. The main bar to this was the correspondent’s excusable identification with the cause and his less excusable incorporation into the military machine.”
Yet, despite the selective application of “objectivity” that war can bring, there is the related question of whether it is wrong for a journalist to become emotionally involved in the story.
Chris Hedges, a former war reporter for the New York Times and now an author, has written passionately about how the quest for “objectivity” actually degrades today’s journalism.
“Reporters who witness the worst of human suffering and return to newsrooms angry see their compassion washed out or severely muted by the layers of editors who stand between the reporter and the reader.
“The creed of objectivity and balance, formulated at the beginning of the 19th century by newspaper owners to generate greater profits from advertisers, disarms and cripples the press. And the creed of objectivity becomes a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths or angering a power structure on which news organizations depend for access and profits.
“This creed transforms reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs.”
Objectivity v. Fairness
Objectivity also differs from fairness. A reporter should always be fair and guided by the facts. But reporters often come to care deeply about their subjects, whether it’s a kitten up a tree, soldiers they accompany on the invasion beach, or the civilians being bombed by an unseen military force.
The late Texas journalist Molly Ivins once observed, “There is no such thing as objectivity. And the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off on one side or the other, it seldom nestles neatly halfway between any two opposing points of view.
“It’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, ‘Cat,’ and the other side saying ‘Dog,’ while the truth is, there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”
Ivins went on to write that “the press’s most serious failures are not its sins of commission, but its sins of omission – the stories we miss, the stories we don’t see, the stories that don’t hold press conferences, the stories that don’t come from reliable sources.”
It’s much easier to miss the stories when the reporters don’t care, when “objectivity” becomes a mask for indifference.
The War Correspondent’s Code
Yet, war correspondents tend to be an unusual and rarely indifferent lot, by turns courageous and crazy, deadly serious and even funny, combining a deep respect for soldiers they cover with a bad attitude for authority and contempt for ineffective or dishonest officers.
Many write sober coverage of death and violence and then get drunk. Good war reporters don’t simply report what the brass tells them; they go out under fire and see for themselves.
War is still the biggest story of all, and reporters still struggle with the constant conflict between the public’s need to know and the military’s zeal to keep things secret. One side fights for information and the other fights either to deny or control it.
Far too often the military considers journalists not so much the Fourth Estate but rather an enemy fifth column. The legacy of suspicion of the media has been passed down in many military institutions like a family heirloom.
Commenting on a recent battle in Iraq, British military historian Stephen Badsey wrote, “The claim that in 2004 at the First Battle of Fallujah the U.S. Marine Corps ‘weren’t beaten by the terrorists and insurgents, they were beaten by al-Jazeera,’ rather than that they employed inappropriate tactics for the political environment of their mission, is recognizable as yet another variant on the long-discredited claim that the Vietnam War was lost on the television screens of America.”
The Vietnam Model
Vietnam was my first experience as a war correspondent. It was a very different war than the one that my predecessors covered in World War II or that journalists face today in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Vietnam lesson for the military, that images and the written word can inform with devastating effect and lead to demands for accountability, has not been forgotten.
Hal Buell, former photo editor for the Associated Press in Asia, in an article for Vietnam Magazine wrote: “It is unlikely that war correspondents and photographers will ever again find themselves with the unfettered access to war that we experienced in Vietnam.
“That is unfortunate, because it serves the nation well to be aware of the facts – be they brutal or joyful – of the world we live in. A successful democracy depends upon access to complete, explicit and unfettered truth, reported honestly and fairly.”
After returning from Vietnam, reporter Michael Herr wrote, “It took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
Good reporters acutely feel that responsibility, battling all obstacles (including their own editors) that sometimes hinder them in telling the story.
Throughout my long career as a war correspondent, I often covered war close-up and know the sting of having braved hardship to discover important facts only to have the truth muddied up by determined government propaganda and not entirely appreciated by editors who have to fend off angry criticism from powerful people.
In 1983, for instance, I spent two months behind the lines with the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, escaping with my life and a story for Newsweek – only to have the U.S. Embassy there state that I was a liar for reporting on a Salvadoran army massacre of civilians.
And war reporting remains very risky. For all the new technology, covering and photographing war still means living dangerously and occasionally dying young. The Committee to Protect Journalists documented at least 71 journalists killed across the globe in 2009, the largest annual toll in the 30 years the group has been keeping track.
Yet, despite the personal sacrifice of war correspondents in conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a growing belief that the U.S. press corps has let the nation down, a perception that is not without reality.
Or as the great reporter A.J. Liebling once said, “The press is the weak slat under the bed of democracy.”
American journalist Bill Moyers recently suggested: “after the invasion of Iraq, ‘the slat’ broke and some strange bedfellows fell to the floor; establishment journalists, neo-con polemicists, beltway pundits, right-wing warmongers flying the skull and bones of the ‘balanced and fair brigade,’ and administration flacks whose classified leaks were manufactured lies – all romping on the same mattress in the foreplay to disaster.
“Thousands of casualties and billions of dollars later, most of the media co-conspirators caught in flagrante delicto are still prominent, still celebrated, and still holding forth with no more contrition than a weathercaster who made a wrong prediction as to the next day’s temperature.”
With the current “embedding” of journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, the journalists live, eat, sleep and patrol with the soldiers, almost never get to talk with civilians and certainly never meet “the enemy.”
As a consequence, they are deeply involved in, and report on, just one side of the story. This limitation – of telling only the “American side” of the story – is somehow taken as proof of a journalist’s “objectivity,” for having avoided the “propaganda” from the “enemy” whose grievances and motivations are rarely heard by the U.S. public.
Oxford University historian Margaret MacMillan, author of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, writes that the manipulation of history is increasingly pervasive in today’s world and stresses that it’s imperative that to understand the present we have to have a clear, truthful and accurate understanding of the past.
MacMillan writes; “History has shaped humans’ values, their fears, their aspirations, their loves, and their hatreds. When we start to realize that, we begin to understand something of the power of the past. We argue over history in part because it can have real significance in the present.
“Examining the past can be a sort of therapy as we uncover knowledge about our own societies that has been overlooked or repressed.”
Winston Churchill understood the lessons of history, too, when he wrote, “The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward.” But Churchill also recognized the power of propaganda and deception, famously saying, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”
As one World War II censor in Washington put it, “I wouldn’t tell the people anything until the war is over and then I’d tell them who won.”
However, as modern warfare has morphed into a never-ending phenomenon with an ever-evolving cast of "enemies," the traditional concept of journalism has changed, too, with U.S. reporters understanding that one misstep that can be deemed “against the troops” likely means the end of a professional career.
The memorial service in New York City for CBS anchor Walter Cronkite on Sept. 10, 2009, became a metaphor for the death of the old notions about journalism and something of a mourning ceremony.
What made Cronkite “the most trusted man in America” for decades was not a rigid concept of objectivity that corporate media and journalism schools preach, but to the contrary, that he cared about the people and events he reported.
At key times, he stepped out of his anchor chair to give his carefully considered opinion, for the civil rights movement and against the continuation of the Vietnam War. He also spoke out against the war in Iraq.
President Barack Obama put the issue into some perspective when he eulogized Cronkite and his brand of journalism at the memorial:
“We also remember and celebrate the journalism that Walter practiced – a standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility to which so many of you have committed your careers. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing.
“Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line. And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary, celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed.
“We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should – and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay?
“This democracy, Walter said, cannot function without a reasonably well-informed electorate. That’s why the honest, meticulous reporting that so many of you pursue with the same zeal that Walter did is so vital to our democracy and our society; our future depends on it.”
Don North is a veteran war correspondent who has covered conflicts from Vietnam and Central America to Kosovo and Iraq. This article was drawn from North’s book manuscript on the case of Paul Morton, a Canadian war correspondent who was sent behind German lines to travel with Italian partisans but who then was betrayed by the Allied command and his own editors.
North’s manuscript, entitled Inappropriate Conduct, is currently seeking a publisher. An excerpt on the Morton case can be read at “Mystery of a ‘Disgraced’ War Reporter.”
Don North's recent documentary, "Guazapa: Yesterday's Enemies," examined the lives of FMLN guerrillas both during and after the civil war. [You can get a copy of North’s documentary by setting up a monthly contribution to Consortiumnews.com of $10 or more. Just click here, set up the tax-deductible donation and follow up with an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org telling us where to ship the DVD.]
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