Jan 1 2002

See No Evil

PR war, not death toll, is nightly news' focus

How many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of U.S.-led bombing? It’s an admittedly difficult question to answer, but many U.S. media outlets don’t even seem to be trying. None of the major networks’ nightly newscasts are offering even rough estimates of the overall number of civilians killed.

It may be some time before a full accounting of the civilian toll from the U.S.-led bombing in Afghanistan is possible, but relief agencies and a few noteworthy news stories do provide information about the scale of the devastation. As a “conservative” estimate, Doctors Without Borders reports that civilian deaths are already in the hundreds and rising (NPR, 12/6/01). On the high end, a compilation of international press reports by a University of New Hampshire professor suggests there may be over 3,500 civilian deaths.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced strong concern about the loss of civilian life and, separately, called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs. Though it was not widely reported in the U.S. press–and not at all on the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS or NBC–in an October 26 press release, Amnesty also demanded “an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international and humanitarian law such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks ” by the U.S. military.

Many non-U.S. journalists–along with a few exceptional American reporters–have noted that the sheer intensity of the U.S.-led bombing raises concerns about the fate of civilians. Agence France Presse reported (16/6/01) that “two months of relentless bombardment have reduced the city of Khandahar to a shattered ghost town,” with no water or electricity and scare food, “housing only the famished who were too poor to leave.” AFP was unable to confirm the number of deaths, but notes that refugees from Khandahar “spoke of horrendous civilian casualties as wave after wave of American bombers” targeted their city.

The London Independent has consistently covered civilian casualties. Early in the war, the paper reported (10/15/01) that after viewing the “pulverized homes” of the village of Karam, “what was apparent was that dozens of, and possibly as many as 200, civilians had been killed” by U.S. bombing. Two months later (12/4/01), the Independent was still covering the human toll: “From all over the countryside , there come stories of villages crushed by American bombs; an entire hamlet destroyed by B-52s at Kili Sarnad, 50 dead near Tora Bora, eight civilians killed by cars bombed by U.S. jets on the road to Khandahar, another 46 in Lashkargah, 12 more in Bibi Mahru.”

Such reporting has been dismissed by many in the U.S. media. “Think of all the nonsense written in the press–particularly the European and Arab media–about the concern for ‘civilian casualties’ in Afghanistan,” wrote Thomas Friedman, who is perhaps the U.S.’s most prominent foreign affairs commentator. “It turns out many of those Afghan ‘civilians’ were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not” (New York Times, 11/23/01).

The idea that Afghans do not object to being killed by American bombs gained surprising currency in the U.S. media. Even during some of the most extensive reporting on civilian casualties–after U.S. bombing near Tora Bora destroyed two villages and killed over 100 people–reporters seemed surprised at Afghans’ negative response. CBS‘s Randall Pinkston reported that “at least 100 people” had been killed, but claimed that until recently, “many Afghans” were “raising few objections to civilians accidentally killed in U.S. bombing attacks.” He noted that the Tora Bora killings had provoked criticism of U.S. policy, and called this “a troubling new reaction” (CBS Evening News, 12/1/01).

One forthright story about the killings near Tora Bora, by NBC correspondent Mike Taibbi (12/3/01), stood in marked contrast not only to the other networks’ reporting, but to NBC‘s own previous coverage of civilian casualties as well. Taibbi investigated the destroyed villages in person, juxtaposing his findings–which included a fragment of a U.S. missile, serial number intact–with the Pentagon’s claim that it was unlikely the incident had occurred.

The “propaganda war”

Unfortunately, this kind of independent approach was the exception rather than the rule on the nightly news shows. Claims that Afghan civilians had been killed were often reported as insubstantial, unverifiable salvos in the so-called “propaganda war.” One report by CBS‘s David Martin (10/23/01) claimed that the Taliban’s “chief weapon seems to be pictures they say are innocent civilians or injured by the bombing.” Martin reported that the Pentagon admits to “a few instances of bombs hitting civilians,” but made no mention of any estimates, from the Pentagon or elsewhere, of the number of people actually killed.

This pattern was repeated several times on the CBS Evening News. A November 6 report stated that George Bush had “opened a new public relations front in the war on terrorism” because “claims of heavy civilian casualties have provoked howls of protest” in Muslim countries. No mention was made of whether such claims were factual, or, as the belittling “howl” might suggest, merely a PR ploy. The next day, CBS again returned to the Taliban “propaganda machine,” with David Martin reporting that “usually it airs claims of civilian casualties  by American bombing.” Again, no mention was made of whether, where or how many civilians had actually been killed.

A few weeks earlier (10/8/01), Martin had filed a report showing images of dead civilians, but included no information about the people–except that they were complicating U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “says the determination to avoid scenes like these of civilians apparently killed by American bombs makes the terrorist hunt more difficult,” reported Martin.

Another Martin report for CBS (10/24/01), this one sourced entirely to the Pentagon and the Bush administration, was introduced by Dan Rather as an investigation of the possibility that “Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders may be growing so desperate that they may kill Afghan civilians just to blame the United States.” Perhaps concerned that the story strained credulity, Martin reminded viewers that “according to the Pentagon, the Taliban is likely to try anything to win the propaganda war.”

Protecting the image

NBC Nightly News also tended to present reports of the U.S. military killing civilians as primarily a propaganda issue. In a report (11/4/01) about America’s battle “to protect its image as a compassionate nation,” NBC correspondent Dan Lothian gave a thumbnail sketch of “the war on terrorism as reported in the Arab world.” With no apparent sense of irony, Lothian catalogued the Arab media’s propaganda: “Daily doses of news concerning civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Graphic pictures below front-page headlines. Compelling stories on cable TV as well.” Daily news, graphic pictures and compelling stories–a threatening arsenal indeed.

“The first casualties of this war were thousands of American civilians,” said Lothian in his wrap-up. “Now, as the Taliban is targeted for protecting the terrorists of Al-Qaeda, the U.S. is also fighting a public relations war.” It’s a difficult passage to parse, but the meaning seems to be that first, American civilians were attacked by terrorists, and now, the United States image is being equally mercilessly attacked.

NBC‘s most persistent advocate of the propaganda perspective, however, was Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who several times portrayed reports of Afghan civilian casualties as an assault on the U.S. Despite the U.S. military’s “overwhelming firepower,” reported Miklaszewski (10/15/01), “the Pentagon is on the defensive today.” Why? Because “the Taliban took foreign journalists on a guided tour of the village of Karam, where they claim U.S. bombs killed 200 civilians.” Later (10/24/01), the Pentagon was still “fighting the propaganda war” by “denying Taliban claims that American bombs have killed more than 1,000 civilians.” The report did not investigate what a more accurate figure might be, or whether any civilians had been killed at all.

A few days later (10/29/01), Miklaszewski again had the Pentagon “on the defensive” against “charges that American bombs are killing hundreds of civilians,” noting that “Rumsfeld says the ultimate blame lies with those who started the war.” Despite Rumsfeld’s  implicit acknowledgement that some civilians–perhaps hundreds–had been killed, NBC again failed to ask how many, where and why.

In comparison to CBS and NBC‘s poor performance, ABC World News Tonight did a bit better at reporting specific numbers and locations of instances when U.S. bombs hit civilians. Reporter David Wright (10/28/01) devoted attention to civilian casualties as an issue in their own right, noting, for example, that “even when the target’s the front line, the trouble is, people live here.” ABC has not, however, focused on the important questions raised by groups like Amnesty International about the legality of U.S. strikes.

When media portay reports of civilian casualties as an attack on America, it’s hardly surprising that serious reporting on the issue is scarce. It is crucial that news outlets independently investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan–not only have many there have been, but how and why they happened.