CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric (1/27/09) introduced a segment on civilian casualties in Afghanistan by saying, “Our Elizabeth Palmer spoke with the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, who says the Taliban have become masters of manipulating public opinion.” That commander, Gen. David McKiernan, was CBS’s sole on-camera source for the segment, making assertions like “we try to avoid [killing civilians]. The insurgent does it on purpose.”
The U.S. military also served as an off-camera source for Palmer as well, cited for claims like “80 percent of Afghan civilians are killed by the Taliban…. But there’s huge frustration that anytime the U.S. military is honest about its lethal mistakes, that’s used against them.”
Actually, though, the U.S. military is not the only source available on the question of how many people they kill. According to U.N. human rights monitors in Afghanistan, 2,100 civilians were killed there in 2008, and in the cases where responsibility could be determined, 41 percent were killed by U.S. or allied forces, including 455 civilians killed by airstrikes. That’s an awful lot of “lethal mistakes.”
Palmer concluded her report: “U.S. success in this complex war depends as much on controlling the message as deploying the guns.” The U.S. military got to be the only source for a story about the deaths it causes: I’d say that’s pretty good message control. The Taliban may be “masters of manipulating public opinion,” but they’ve got nothing on CBS.