NEW YORK CITY—If the first casualty of war is the truth, any dispatch from Afghanistan was likely to slay it in its very first word.
The dateline says: We are there, we saw it happen. But they weren’t. They didn’t.
Poor Geraldo Rivera got slugged for pretending otherwise. A crossover from MSNBC to Fox News in the rating wars, he was on his first combat mission for Rupert Murdoch (Extra!, 1-2/02). He let it be known that he was armed to the teeth, or at least to the ankle holster, raring to track the enemy into his cave.
Instead, he was stranded in a desert outpost south of nowhere. There was nothing to report; the Marines didn’t even let reporters know when the survivors of a friendly fire episode were passing through. What could Geraldo do? He did a standup revealing that he had been shot at by a sniper nobody else saw or heard. Exclusive.
Then he moved to another airfield, and pointed to “the hallowed ground” where those heroes were hit by that friendly bomb. Another exclusive. Only, the Baltimore Sun (12/12/01) pointed out that he was a hundred miles from the actual spot, and several days off on the date it happened. Lots of papers snickered at this, and Dan Rather played it on the CBS Evening News.
But let’s be fair. Who’s pure?
The last scruple about datelines seems to have perished on 9/11. In my experience, it had never troubled the wire services; if a plane crashed in the mountains, the dateline would be the nearest town on the map, even if there wasn’t a reporter in a hundred miles. At the New York Daily News, I was instructed that a telephone call justified a dateline, though there’s a world of difference between being at the scene and getting a few words from a busy deputy sheriff on the phone. Many other newspapers fudged datelines, but at the New York Times, in my day, you had to have been there, or at least passed through on that date, if only to add a dab of local color.
On October 18, the day Geraldo was being hit by unfriendly media fire, the Times led Page One with a dispatch datelined Tora Bora. One of the two reporters who signed it was actually writing it in Washington, or rather rewriting the war reporting of the Pentagon spokesperson, Adm. John D. Stufflebeem. A sidebar of military analysis also bore the Tora Bora dateline—who could resist it?—but relied for its expertise on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was in Brussels.
In fact, no U.S. reporter seems ever to have been allowed to witness actual combat in Afghanistan. The Times would have done well to reserve its bylines and datelines for reporters who earned them, like Carlotta Gall in her reporting on war victims and on the treatment of prisoners.
TV news prides itself on its ability to take you where the action is, but where is that? On a typical evening, January 3, CNN brought us “LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN.” It opened with the anchor, Bill Hummer, standing up, somewhere in Afghanistan no doubt. He immediately handed the screen back to the spokesperson at the Pentagon, then he asked Bob Franken, who was standing outside the White House, what was happening in Afghanistan. Bob’s sources agreed with the Pentagon. Then LIVE FROM AFGHANISTAN panned to Gen. Tommy Franks in Tampa, and finally, to Little Rock, for an expert opinion from the retired Gen. Wesley Clark. As I tuned out, he was admitting that he didn’t have a clue.
Neither did I.
Newspaper veteran (and actual veteran) John L. Hess really was in New York City when he wrote this piece.