Afghanistan and the American media

Today's question: How is the American media doing in its coverage of the first (Afghanistan) phase of our war against international terrorism? Two recent books can help to provide a partial answer to that provocative question.

One book, "It Ain't Necessarily So," co-authored by prominent media critic Robert Lichter, argues that the press can't cover complex scientific and medical issues -- like the recent anthrax scare -- without going off the deep end. And the other book, "Bias," by former CBS-TV senior producer Bernard Goldberg, accuses the broadcast TV networks of liberal bias. In a review of both books, Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, uses a recent anecdote to illustrate how many of us feel about media coverage of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

"Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, ventured outside New York ... to discover the mood of the country," Barnes wrote. "In Dallas, a man told him bluntly, 'Nobody likes you.' The man added that the press's reporting is unpatriotic and isn't helping the nation recover from the attacks of Sept. 11."

Although I wouldn't go that far, I would agree with Barnes that at a time of national crisis when President Bush is wildly popular, "a majority of Americans disapprove of the news media." But why?

Well, we could start with a decision by ABC News president David Westin, who banned American flag lapel pins in the name of "objectivity."

Asked if the Pentagon was a legitimate target for attack by America's enemies, Westin replied, "I actually don't have an opinion on that . . . As a journalist I feel strongly that's something I should not be taking a position on." That's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard from a fellow journalist. We're Americans first and journalists second, and that's that!

Early in the war, ABC and Jennings compounded Westin's error by concentrating on Taliban reports of civilian casualties due to U.S. bombing. According to Barnes, "ABC accepted them (the Taliban claims) as credible and played them up. Predictably, the claims turned out to be false."

ABC even scoffed at President Bush's plan to have American kids send a dollar to Afghan children. That's when some viewers asked ABC a question: Whose side are you on anyway?

Barnes also criticized the New York Times' coverage of the war as "grimly defeatist" and accused Times Washington bureau chief R.W. Apple of focusing "on supposed similarities between American interventions in Afghanistan and Vietnam .... On the day anti-Taliban forces made their first big breakthrough in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Times focused on a tiny incident in which Taliban soldiers tricked Northern Alliance troops into thinking they'd surrendered, then opened fire."

On the other hand, some big-name American journalists are wearing their patriotism on their sleeves. CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather broke down and cried on the "David Letterman Show." "Wherever he (the president) wants me to line up, just tell me where," the 70-year-old Rather told Letterman.

And then there's the inimitable Geraldo Rivera, who always wants to be the center of attention by being in the middle of the action. Rivera, who left NBC to become a Fox News Channel war correspondent, has been waving the flag incessantly since he arrived in Afghanistan.

After he reported from the alleged site of an incident in which three American soldiers were killed by "friendly fire," however, it was revealed that Geraldo was actually hundreds of miles away from the site. The intrepid war correspondent explained that he had made an "honest mistake" and accused his critics of "Geraldo-bashing," which I'm enjoying right now.

Egocentric reporters like Rivera give all journalists a bad name because they will say or do anything to make sure the story revolves around them. Remember CNN correspondent Peter Arnett in Baghdad during the Gulf War? Later, he rushed off to Haiti, hoping for a war that never materialized.

My own experience in Grenada during our 1983 invasion of that small Caribbean island convinced me that you can't paint all war correspondents with the same brush. Most of the reporters I dealt with were only trying to do their jobs, although a few of them jazzed-up their stories by accentuating the negative.

A case in point: After a late-night bar conversation with an American official, a New York Times correspondent reported that a mass grave had been discovered on the island, and I had to debunk the story on national television. That's when I went eye-to-eye with the venerable Times and, fortunately for my diplomatic career, the Times blinked first.

"Bias," the Bernard Goldberg book I mentioned earlier, argues that there's a built-in liberal bias at the TV networks. "You can talk freely about many things when you work for the big network news operations," he wrote, "but liberal bias is not one of them .... They continue to slant the news and then deny they're doing it."

But Brent Baker of the conservative Media Research Center disagrees. "There's not much to complain about thematically from a conservative point of view," he told the Weekly Standard. "The tone of (war) coverage has changed .... They're not trying to impute political motives to everything Bush does or says."

I tend to agree with Baker, and think the best we can hope for is for most of the war correspondents to remember what they learned in Journalism 101 about objectivity, the separation of fact and opinion, and multiple-sourcing. With President Bush's popularity hovering around 90 percent, even liberal journalists are demonstrating admirable restraint in their coverage of the war on terrorism. And that's good news.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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