Media and Death

Bashing America’s elite papers of record — particularly the New York Times and Washington Post — is generally so easy it gets boring. Every now and then, however, examining the Official Truths revealed by such papers carries significance far beyond simple critiques of biased or irresponsible media.

Hence, yesterday, an investigative-style headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times blared what readers of this column — not to mention most of the rest of the world — knew last October, when there was time to do something about it: “Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians may have died in Afghanistan.”

The report, by the investigative team of Barry Bearak, Eric Schmitt, and Craig Smith, went on mostly to explain how hard it was to tell just how many people actually died in Afghanistan, or their allegiances; indeed, the web headline was, later in the day, oddly changed to “Uncertain Toll in the Fog of War,” as though acknowledging the probable death toll was just too much in a headline for American readers’ delicate sensibilities.

The hook for the Times story was the Jan. 24 raid which mistakenly killed at least 15 civilians, and which has drawn the criticism of every level of Afghan government (such as it is), as well as much of the Islamic world. But that incident — in which the Pentagon first claimed the dead were Al Qaeda leaders, then Taliban fighters, before vowing, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to “investigate” — was no worse than dozens of others reported by credible, non-Taliban sources on virtually a daily basis throughout the nearly two-month period between the start of the U.S. attacks and the collapse of the Taliban government. The only difference now is that the ministries in Kabul — not necessarily tied to the thuggish warlords actually now controlling most of the country — are supposedly on our side, bought and paid for.

The Times account acknowledges, starting in the third paragraph, that “despite scores of credible reports about…sizable civilian losses — accounts from the United Nations, aid agencies and journalists — the military has made detailed inquiries into but a few cases….Most often, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and military spokesmen have dismissed accusations of mistakes as enemy propaganda.”

True enough — although crediting all of these incidents as “mistakes” is in itself debatable. Some were clearly the result of bad or outdated information, and others of errant missiles. But some — as in the destruction of the Kabul studios of the pan- Arabic TV news channel Al-Jazeera — seemed suspiciously intentional. And the Times goes on to give us the “hundreds, perhaps thousands” line, badly understating the results of many counts but nonetheless a remarkable departure from past Times reports.

The article goes on to explain the difficulties in tabulating Afghan deaths, the U.S. military’s procedures for investigating them, and gives some examples of reported atroc–er, “mistakes,” and a few comments from Human Rights Watch. But even with this much of a welcomed, high-profile acknowledgement of the civilian dead of Afghanistan — and it’s useful to remember that it took far longer for mainstream media to begin discussing the U.S. government lies and much larger civilian death tolls of the Gulf War — there are some gaping holes in the Times’ story. At least two are critically important.

First, there’s no examination of why the Times itself, along with virtually every other major news outlet in the U.S., ignored these readily available reports throughout the most active portion of the war, when public attention and outcry could have made a difference in the number of dead. Those reports appeared routinely not just in Islamic press and in alternative news sites like this one, but in mainstream British papers — the country fighting the war alongside the United States, but one whose media maintained at least a modicum of critical distance from its government.

British papers had other advantages. Most obviously, many had reporters with decades of experience in the region — men who knew the local languages, history, customs, and knew how to lift some of the “fog of war” so mystifying to the Times and its colleagues. By comparison, blow-dry network reporters just off the plane (or, in Geraldo Riviera’s case, the petri dish) demonstrated their appalling ignorance every time tape rolled.

But one of the biggest differences was one of the simplest, and the key to any investigative reporting: the willingness to ask the right questions. Instead, U.S. accounts of the war repeatedly seemed to come from an alternate universe to the rest of the world’s media — specifically, a willfully uncurious universe that began and ended with press briefings from Rumsfeld, the White House, and U.S. commanders behind the lines, simplified for the viewing or reading audience and squeezed into the screen next to the patriotic graphics and theme music.

Secondly, and even more tellingly, yesterday’s Times account is based safely in the past. It reports on the Jan. 24 incident but not the prospect for any similar ones in the future. And it wholly omits the biggest cause of U.S.-related civilian deaths in

Afghanistan: starvation. This larger issue is much more preventable today. Drought, poverty, and war left up to seven million Afghans at risk of starvation this winter — and then the United States attacked.

The nearly two-month bombing campaign not only prevented most aid from getting into Afghanistan, but left in place warlords whose soldiers have stolen far more aid, and posed far more of a menace to aid workers and convoys, than the Taliban ever did. The upshot is that while enormous amounts of aid have poured into the country since early December, some was too late and more has never gotten where it was (and is) needed. The death toll that has resulted as a direct result continues as you read this. It dwarfs the toll from U.S. military “mistakes,” appalling as those are, and is far more difficult to count.

But that’s only one of the reasons we’ll never know how many more have died, and are now dying. And given that spring is still two months away, and concerted U.S. efforts could still help some of the people who would otherwise die, the Times’ omissions are not just an academic matter.


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