I follow news on two levels. The first level is trying to get actual information about what happened. The second meta-level is observing how events are covered and what and whose agenda is being served by the news media.
I cannot remember when I first started following the news in this dualistic way but I do know that by 1989 I had already fallen into this habit. Two things happened simultaneously in December of that year that drove home to me forcefully the need to do this.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, there was a revolt in Romania against its despotic leader Nikolai Ceausescu that began around December 17, 1989 that resulted in the government firing on demonstrators. This increased the protests and eventually led to the overthrow of the government and the later execution of Ceausescu.
Meanwhile on December 20, the US invaded Panama to overthrow its leader Manuel Noriega, massively bombing whole areas of the capital city, in the process destroying the densely populated El Chorrillo neighborhood in downtown Panama, which contained mostly poor people.
In those pre-internet days I had no recourse other than US TV to keep up with breaking news and I recall watching the news coverage as it switched back and forth between events in these two countries.
When it came to Romania, the US TV news reporters expressed deep skepticism about the Romanian government’s official claims about everything being fine and actually went to investigate the reported killings of civilians by the forces loyal to Ceausescu. They relayed stories of the dead and displaced that contradicted the official accounts. They acted as journalists should, being skeptical of official claims and seeking independent verification of the facts by going to the scene of the events and talking with eyewitnesses.
When the news switched to coverage of the events in Panama, however, it was quite different. The US reporters exhibited a remarkable lack of curiosity about civilian casualties caused by the US bombing and showed a cheerful willingness to accept at face value the official US government and military version of events. Once in a while the network news anchor would ask the reporter if he had heard of any civilian casualties as a result of the US invasion and the answer was always the same, that the US government and the military had ‘no information’ about the number of civilian dead. That was it. There was no attempt at all to independently find out the truth as they had done in Romania, although they had far more reporters on the ground in Panama. The news media acted as pure propaganda agents, passing on the US government and military story.
Those who think the media are better now are deceiving themselves. This kind of unbalanced reporting is still alive and well in the way that the media covers civilian casualties in the current conflicts around the world. How it is reported depends on whether the civilians are killed by ‘us’ and ‘our’ friends or by ‘them’, where the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are defined by the US government.
Consider the conflict currently going on in Afghanistan.
On August 26, 2008 the BBC reported deaths by US bombing of about 90 people, 60 of them children, in the village of Azizabad in Afghanistan. But in the US such reports are treated as merely rumors not worth sending a reporter to, unless confirmed by the US military. And in order to prevent US reporters going there, the US authority has a standard procedure it follows whenever such a tragedy happens: first deny that any civilians died at all and assert that all the people killed were the enemy (which on its face is highly unlikely in any guerilla war), then when the prima facie case becomes too strong (as in this case when even UN observers confirm the deaths) say that they will themselves investigate, and ask the reporters to hold off on any judgment until the investigation is completed at some indefinite date.
Pentagon officials say they are concerned about the conflicting reports and are continuing their own investigation. Spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not know when the investigation would end and its results released.
All this is stalling for time, with the military either staying silent and hoping people will forget the incident or conceding at a much later time that a very small number of civilians were killed in the midst of a large number of enemy, thus becoming ‘collateral damage’ and thus supposedly excusable.
The US media is happy to play along in this game. The blog left I on the news describes the reporting by the New York Times of this particular incident, and follows up with a description of the classic non-denial denial by a US government spokesperson when the evidence gets too strong.
It now turns out that there is credible evidence that the original report of large numbers of civilian deaths (including the huge number of children) is correct. But this report in a major US newspaper came on September 7, about two weeks later, and is still being denied and stonewalled by the US military, who still claim that they were responding to Taliban attacks. Meanwhile, to pacify the furious Afghan people, the Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a vague and general apology for any civilian casualties, without acknowledging specific culpability in this case, and promised to take more care in the future.
This pattern is then repeated the next time civilians are killed. The US military has still not acknowledged civilian deaths.
Glenn Greenwald follows up the story, providing more details of the original incident as well as the attempted cover-up.
Next: Other examples of unbalanced coverage
POST SCRIPT: The elitists
An odd feature of this campaign is the attempt by the McCain campaign to try and paint Obama as an ‘elitist’. But Newsweek ran a story that looked into how many cars each candidate owns. The scorecard? The McCains: 13, the Obamas: 1, and that too a modest Ford Escape Hybrid.