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From owner-labor-l@YORKU.CA Fri Nov 9 06:50:47 2001
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Date: Thu, 8 Nov 2001 23:04:26 -0600
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
From: Kim Scipes <sscipe1@ICARUS.CC.UIC.EDU>
Subject: A FIGHT ON TWO FRONTS--Thoughtful piece on the media

A fight on two fronts: In the trenches and on the airwaves

By Phillip Knightley, [8 November 2001]

There is an irreconcilable conflict in the way war is reported, highlighted once again by the allied attack on Afghanistan and the anthrax terror in the United States. Two quotations explain this conflict better than any reasoned argument.

A government censor, asked in 1943 what he thought the American public should be told about the war, replied: I’d tell them nothing till it’s over and then I’d tell them who won. And the BBC broadcaster, Sir Robin Day, pondering on whether uninhibited reporting in Vietnam had led to America’s defeat there, doubted whether a democracy would ever be able to fight a war again, no matter how just, because of the way TV news would portray the horror of battle.

There we have it. Governments and their armies go to war to win and do not care how they do it. For them, the media is a menace. Only in wars of national survival, such as the second World War, can they count on the media to support them to the hilt. Reuters war correspondent Charles Lynch said, It’s 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 just a propaganda arm of our governments.

But in other wars—the Falklands, the Gulf War, Kosovo and now Afghanistan—no government can automatically assume that the media will be on side. And without the media on side, public support for the war could well ebb away. In democracies like Britain, with a powerful press and a tradition of dissent, or like the United States, where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed, the media cannot be coerced into supporting the war. It has to be seduced or intimidated into self-censorship.

So in all the countries supporting the attack on Afghanistan we have already seen appeals to the media’s patriotism, the national interest, security and the need to support our boys. This has been combined with accusations that the media has favored the enemy, endangered the safety of the nation’s leaders, stabbed the troops in the back, fallen for enemy propaganda and sabotaged the war effort.

In Britain, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, summoned media bosses to Downing Street and asked them to agree not to rebroadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, particularly recorded videos, because they might contained coded messages to his followers. Or they might encourage British Muslims to volunteer for service with the Taliban.

The American Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, warned the American media chiefs that they could expect little cooperation from the Pentagon, because this was a new type of war in which secrecy was paramount. CNN agreed to broadcast reminders to its viewers about the September 11 atrocity and why the Western Alliance was bombing Afghanistan.

An essential part of the Western alliance’s strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well. Two battles: The Military Campaign; The Public Relations Campaign. Of course, the real reason Blair and Rumsfeld wanted to control the flow of news from Afghanistan was concern that images of civilian bomb victims would shake public support for the Western alliance. An attack led by two powerful nations against a Third World agricultural one, already reduced to ruin and in the grip of a famine, was never going to be an edifying sight or an easy one to sell.

It depended on convincing the public that this was purely a war on terrorism, that the West has no quarrel with the people of Afghanistan and no quarrel with Islam. Only the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s forces would be attacked. The latest high-tech weaponry, with its pinpoint accuracy, would keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Bloody TV footage or grim still photographs of civilian bomb victims would threaten this most outrageous piece of propaganda, so an essential part of the Western alliance’s strategy has been not only to bomb in the dark but, as far as possible, to keep the public in the dark as well.

This is becoming increasingly difficult. In the beginning, with no war correspondents on the ground where the bombs and missiles were striking, hundreds of correspondents gathered across the borders in nearby countries, where they were reduced to reporting rumors. TV anchormen back home had to telephone the latest news to their correspondents in the field so that they could then interview them on air.

But the Taliban have stepped up their propaganda by allowing the Associated Press to station a correspondent and a photographer in Kabul and now by conducting Western media teams around areas that have been bombed. All these reporters have been responsible in that they have warned their readers and viewers that they have been alllowed to see only what the Taliban have wanted them to see.

But, war being what it is, it is only a matter of time before a stray missile or bomb hits a civilian area right in front of the correspondents and the full horror of warfare will dominate the front pages and TV screens of Western media in a manner no official spokesman will be able to counter.

In the meantime, by force of circumstance, the main source of news has become official statements. Thus, the reporting of war has come full circle. Before William Howard Russell of The Times became the first civilian war correspondent in the Crimean War (1854-56), generals reported their own wars -- Wellington on Waterloo, for instance. Now, nearly 150 years later, if we want to learn what is happening in Afghanistan, we turn on CNN and there is an American four-star general, medals glinting in the spotlight, telling us what he has decided we should know about the war. How many Taliban were killed, general?I don’t want to discuss casualties. Were any Americans killed?I’m not going to get into that.

The danger of trusting only official sources emerged when a U.S. Defense Department spokesperson admitted that a 1,000 pound bomb aimed at a Taliban vehicle depot had gone astray and landed near a senior citizens’ residence, causing an unknown number of casualties. This statement caused some bewilderment (to say the least) among aid agencies, which said that old people’s homes are virtually non-existent in Afghanistan, where the average life expectancy is 40 years.

Even war correspondents for the American armed forces’ own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, will not be allowed to accompany any invasion force, nor will any other correspondents. When the land invasion gets under way, the Pentagon will no doubt accredit at least a few war correspondents, probably under a pool system, like in the Gulf War. (Five or six correspondents accompanied the armed forces there and wrote stories that were then distributed to all the media.)

Think again. A war correspondent for the American armed forces’ own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, told me this week that he had just been informed of a Pentagon ruling that even he would not be allowed to accompany any invasion force, nor would any other correspondent.

Will the media bosses accept this? They have little choice. They either agree to allow their reporters to enter Afghanistan on Taliban-conducted tours—and shrug off administration criticism that they are Taliban stooges and cannot be trusted —or try to inflitrate correspondents against the military’s wishes and risk being killed by the Taliban, who think all reporters are spies, or arrested by their own side.

Even more worrying for the media, the British government has alleged that the two assassins who blew up Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, were carrying journalists’ accreditations provided by a British publisher, Yasser Al-Siri, who is in prison in Britain awaiting trial for conspiracy to murder Massoud. This allegation automatically puts everyone carrying press credentials in Afghanistan—both in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance and by the Taliban —in danger. How does anyone know who is a real journalist and who is an assassin posing as one?

It is likely that the American media realizes that Rumsfeld is right about this being a different war, in which the old rules of reporting do not apply. This would explain why it is concentrating on the home front news—the battle against anthrax terrorism. The newspaper and TV programs are empty of news from Afghanistan. But here, too, freedom of expression is in danger. The news organisations appear to be censoring themselves.

The argument is that round-the-clock coverage of the anthrax attacks is frightening Americans and risks creating panic. In a CNN discussion this week, several panelists argued that there was too much news of anthrax and that the media should lay off for a while. In Britain, the BBC guidelines on reporting the war urge its correspondents and editors to be careful in referring to chemical and biological terrorism.

The possibility of their use is to be discussed calmly. . . If their use is rumoured only, our reports must not be alarmist or excited. This might explain an allegation made by the veteran politician and former Member of Parliment Tony Benn, that when he was visiting the House of Commons recently, the post room was closed while it was tested for anthrax, an event, he claimed, that was reported nowhere.

Given all these difficulties, what stories in this war have not had the attention they deserved?

First and foremost, the effect of the bombing on the civilian population of Afghanistan—although newspapers in Britain have now started to carry reports and photographs of victims. Families blown apart, infants dying. The terrible images of this ’just war,’ said the Independent.

The extent of the opposition to the war. When readers of The Guardian wrote complaining that anti-war marches were not mentioned in the paper, the readers’ editor reported that he had raised this at an editorial meeting only to be told that it was not the paper’s policy to cover marches. The next day the paper carried a correction saying that it WAS the paper’s policy to cover anti-war marches, if newsworthy, and it would do so in the future.

The oil conspiracy theory. Early in the bombing of Afghanistan, rumors that the United States was anxious to instal a pro-American government there because it wanted to build an oil pipeline across the country were dismissed as another conspiracy theory. But now respected academics like the British professor of politics, George Monbiot, have uncovered evidence that this is probably true.

Monbiot says that, just a few days before the attack on New York, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported: Afghanistan’s significance from an energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from central Asia to the Arabian Sea. Monbiot says, I believe that the U.S. government is genuine in its attempt to stamp out terrorism by military force in Afghanistan, however misguided that may be. But it would be naive to believe that this is all it is doing.

Not even in the media itself has there been any discussion of Al Jazeera’s appeal—it has more than 70 million viewers—and the reasons for it.

Other commentators have wondered whether Pakistan is being kept on side by a secret promise of oil royalties from any pipeline which eventually terminates in its territory. But there has been no in-depth discussion of this.

The role of Al Jazeera, the Arab TV station favoured by Osama bin Laden when he wants to address the world. Most British broadcasters have issued health warnings when airing Al Jazeera footage, telling viewers that they cannot vouch for the accuracy of the material. But the government still blames Al Jazeera in part for the wobble in British resolve and the declining public support for the bombing.

And not even in the media itself has there been any discussion of Al Jazeera’s appeal—it has more than 70 million viewers —and the reasons for it. Tony Benn offered one: it was not frightened to run long programmes in which the war, its origins and progress were seriously and exhaustively discussed. Benn said Al Jazeera approached him for an interview to discuss the war. How long do you want? I said. Two minutes? Recorded, I presume? Benn said the producer replied: No. Two hours, live. Benn said it was the toughest and most illuminating interview he had even done and that Al Jazeera had such feedback from its Arab viewers that it repeated the programme the following day and has told him it wants to do another one.

Before this war is over there will no doubt be other stories that are not covered, that are distorted, exaggerated, slanted and spun. Does it matter? In 1999, a group of American congressmen traveled to Yugoslavia because they felt that they could trust neither their own government nor the media to tell them what was really happening there.

The enormous confusion which has taken place due to media manipulation on all sides has only contributed to the blood lust which—if it is the only basis for decision-making—could lead to a much wider and longer war, the congressmen reported.

So yes, it does matter.