In an August 15 news item carried by Press Gazette Online, Rena Golden, the executive vice-president and general manager of CNN International, admitted censoring news regarding the US war in Afghanistan. This censorship, she explained, "wasn’t a matter of government pressure, but a reluctance to criticize anything in a war that was obviously supported by the vast majority of the people."
How exactly the American public are expected to judge the validity of the US war in Afghanistan–and, indeed, the entire war on terrorism–when news organizations refuse to provide crucial information is not explained. In essence, Golden admits public opinion is cast by one source–the government–and the media has essentially abrogated its responsibility to provide additional, even contrary information on these momentous issues.
Additionally, CNN New Delhi chief Satinder Bindra said many journalists pushed "harder than they should for a story," thus endangering the lives of other journalists covering the war from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bindra did not comment on how exactly journalists might be expected to receive information for their stories, or what precisely constitutes pushing "harder than they should." Maybe Bindra expects them to remain ensconced in their Islamabad hotel rooms and wait patiently for the news to arrive by courier? Or stay in Washington and rely on Donald Rumsfeld as their only source?
While many journalists complained about military imposed censorship during the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, it now appears the corporate media has decided on its own to censor the news without external limitation imposed by the Pentagon. In other words, the corporate media has in essence become a rather short-sighted and assentive propaganda organ for the Bush administration. Remarkably, they attribute this lapdog conversion to a desire not to offend public opinion, which they arrogantly assume is entirely monolithic. It would seem CNN is now the official government news agency.
As official Bush administration propaganda mills, CNN and other corporate news networks have obsequiously agreed to a White House demand not to broadcast unedited remarks by Usama bin Laden. The White House wasted no time in exacting likewise from newspapers in regard to print transcripts. "In a bizarre and unprecedented move," Veronica Forwood, chairwoman of the British branch of Reporters without Borders, remarked, "the five major networks–CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox News Channel–have rolled over and acquiesced to the call for censorship from the US president’s security adviser Condoleeza Rice."
During the Persian Gulf War, however, things were different–some of the media did not so easily roll over and play dead like a dog straight out of obedience school. In 1991, Harper’s, The Village Voice, The Nation, and others sued, claiming government censorship was a violation of the First Amendment. Predictably, the major corporate newspapers and TV networks refused to join the lawsuit. Instead, as now, they simply ingratiated themselves with the Pentagon and dutifully spoon-fed the public censored and heavily excised information (if not outright lies and fabrications). The lawsuit was eventually dismissed by a judge who didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. It would seem the media of decades past was made of brawnier stuff than the media of today.
John MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, wistfully entertained the idea of suing again, but he was less than sanguine about the prospect. "We might sue again, some small lawsuits, some civil libertarians may do so, but it’s hopeless," he told the German journalist Gerti Schoen back in September. "This will be the most censored war in history… It won’t just be censorship, but silence." While we have not exactly received complete silence, the news trickling out of Afghanistan is, to say the least, highly stage managed and tilted for a world of spin.
So confident is the Pentagon corporate media resides in its hip pocket that back in December they dropped a requirement demanding journalists covering Afghanistan be part of an exclusive and authorized group, otherwise known as a "press pool." The press pool concept was devised in 1983 when the US invaded Grenada. It was updated in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War after publishers such as MacArthur began murmuring about military censorship. The relaxation of the press pool rules in December, however, did not prevent the military from denying journalists access to the war zone. On December 6, when American troops were hit by a stray bomb north of Kandahar, photojournalists were locked in a warehouse by Marines to make sure they didn’t take pictures of wounded soldiers.
More recently, media access to the Uruzgan wedding massacre was sharply curtailed. When journalists in Kabul submitted a request to join press officers at the Bagram air base–in order to travel by helicopter to the site–they were steadfastly denied permission by the military. Only two journalists traveled with US investigators to villages near Deh Rawud–one was a reporter from the US armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes and the other was cameraman from the Associated Press Television Network. The chief US media officer at Bagram, Colonel Roger King, told those left behind they would have no right of access to the pool reporters’ work. King’s statement was a contradiction of the Pentagon’s own press pool guidelines. As a result of this decision, it took four days for information about the Uruzgan wedding massacre to be made public. Allegations were later leveled by United Nations workers, accusing the military of changing the press pool rules in order to limit access to the area and thus destroy evidence, a charge the Pentagon naturally denied.
But the Pentagon’s war against media coverage in Afghanistan is not limited to reporters and news crews on the ground. In October, as the brass busily prepared for war, they used public money, at the none too shabby tune of $2 million per month, to secure exclusive rights to all new high-quality commercial spy satellite images of Afghanistan. During a policy debate on the release of satellite imagery, the idea was floated that the Pentagon might shoot down the commercial satellites if they were not allowed to control the images. Regardless, in December the Pentagon decided not to continue the exclusive contract. Considering CNN’s recent admission of tailoring news in deference to the sensitivities of the American people, access to satellite photography is a moot point–chances are they would not publish them anyway.
It would seem Americans need to be protected from the harsh realities of war–or, more likely, as in the case of Vietnam, their visceral abhorrence to it–when it comes to documentaries, as well. When Irish director Jamie Doran released his controversial documentary–Massacre in Mazar–in Europe, not one major US newspaper or television network covered the story, which essentially resulted in a news black out in the United States. Doran’s film documents the aftermath of the massacre of hundreds of Taliban fighters at the Mazar-i-Sharif prison Qala-i-Jangi. In the documentary, dead prisoners are shown with hands tied behind their backs. Eyewitnesses describe the torture and slaughter of some 3,000 prisoners who were subsequently buried in the desert. While the Pentagon has denied any complicity in the torture and massacre of the POWs, many European parliamentary deputies and human rights advocates have called for an independent investigation into the atrocities. The human rights lawyer Andrew McEntee said it is "clear there is prima facie evidence of serious war crimes committed not just under international law, but also under the laws of the United States itself." Nonetheless, CNN, Fox, NBC, CBS, et al, decided not to run coverage of the film or announce the possibility of an investigation. Much later, however, when the massacre story simply became too high profile to ignore, it did receive a degree of limited coverage in the United States.
Fortunately, the press in Britain and Europe has an excellent track record of covering stories the US media have consistently (and deliberately) ignored at the behest of the Pentagon and the Bush administration. Thanks to the Internet, these stories can be read by Americans without access to foreign newspapers. Both the Guardian and the UK Independent carry alternative news (available via the Web)–and also carry reports and editorials by award winning journalists such as Robert Fisk and John Pilger. These are news stories and opinions The NY Times would never touch.
We no longer live in a world of hermetically sealed information. For those Americans thirsty for truth–and who do not take kindly to their news being sanitized and rubber stamped by the Pentagon and unelected presidents–there are more than a few sources out there.
Kurt Nimmo is a photographer and multimedia developer in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org