From Himal Southasian, Volume 16, Number 4 (APR 2003)
A CASUALTY of the war on Iraq by George W Bush has been the image of the American press as the exemplar of journalistic accomplishment. For decades, journalists worldwide, and in the developing world in particular, looked up to their American colleagues with awe (that word!) and respect, as models of probity, independence, courage and investigative zeal. Watergate and all that.
Well, it turns out that they just had not been tested. When the time came for American editors, reporters, studio anchors and producers to stand up to the establishment and the mass expectation of the public, their feet turned to clay.
The 30 March New York Times had this headline in a dateline Washington DC piece by David E Sanger: “As a Quick Victory Grows Less Likely, Doubts Are Quietly Voiced”. When American politicians and journalists raise doubts ‘quietly’, there is little that distinguishes them from their peers all over the world, in countries underdeveloped or overdeveloped.
It started after 11 September 2001, when television, press and radio began to ply the American public with what it wanted to hear about the rest of the world. This was then force-fed to the rest of the world. In the run-up to Gulf War II, the American press did not question or caution, at one with the weak-kneed congressmen and senators who gave George W Bush a carte blanche to dare and misrepresent his way to war.
Perhaps the worst hour of Western journalism is when it ’embeds’ its operatives — hardly reporters — within army columns to report on heroics on the desert road to Baghdad. Whatever happened to war correspondents who were still around till Vietnam?
With its power and reach, Western satellite media is dehumanising the Arab man, woman and child, which is why we do not feel stabs of pain as heavy ordnance, cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs explode in inhabited cities. News reports shirk from presenting the direct connection between the blazing night sky on television and the death and maiming of civilians on the ground. The channels prefer not to show images of dead, bleeding, destitute people to save the sentiments of viewers at home.
An Iraqi missile harmlessly hitting a Kuwaiti shopping centre gets more airtime than dozens of dead in a Baghdad market. Armoured columns rushing through empty desert are hailed for the speed with which they rush through empty desert. American public relations generals talk down to reporters so submissive that it reminds us of the ‘government press’ in tin-pot dictatorships.
It seems time to cast aside the American media role models. They are acting no different than journalists in ‘imperfect’ democracies when they cower before the vehement, whipped-up beliefs of the public. The fear of being labelled unpatriotic forces them to toe the line, the same way as happens in, say, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Thailand, or…lraq.
As the exposé of American media continues to unfold on television screens and downloaded articles, however, no one need feel any sense of superiority over the reporters so thankfully picking up morsels thrown their way by Centcom. For it is a tragedy when the tutor is found wanting.
The times call for humility, for everywhere journalists have their insecurities and inadequacies. As we watch television reporters and anchors make a mockery of their craft and careers, the only respectable response is to search within ourselves, and our motives, every time we file a story. With the Western ideal so blatantly exposed, we must now live in a world where we make our own standards and live up to them.