It was too good to last. The news media, which by and large performed admirably for about a month after the events of Sept. 11, are showing clear signs of reverting to old habits. The sour cynicism directed at American officials, the credulous reporting of enemy claims, the shallowness and sensationalism that once were the province of cheesy local stations but have long since become a staple of the network news departments – all of these are slowly coming out of hiding and reasserting themselves as the driving forces of American journalism.
For those readers not inclined to take the Monitor’s word on this, let’s hear from a couple of industry insiders. New York Times photographer Vincent Laforet, stationed in Pakistan, recently delivered a remarkable warning to unsuspecting Americans.
“Speaking of the media,” Laforet said, “I have but one thing to tell you. Don’t trust anything you see on TV and be wary of some of the things you read. I witnessed how sensationalistic the media can be during the Florida recount. It’s even worse here. We covered a pro-Taliban demonstration last week attended by maybe 5,000 protestors. CNN stated there were 50,000. The BBC estimated 40,000.”
Veteran ABC correspondent Jim Wooten, discussing the ease with which Taliban spokesmen disseminate their propaganda in the Western media, made this observation on the Oct. 25 broadcast of “World News Tonight”:
“The Taliban says 200 are dead. Days later, when reporters visit the site, they find nowhere near that number of casualties, but by then the story is already out: the Taliban version. It happens nearly every day. In the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, the Taliban ambassador presents some murky account of American atrocities or Taliban success. ‘This time,’ he says, -the U.S. is using chemical weapons and targeting civilians, and a thousand have already been killed.’ Often no pictures, no proof.”
Not that every ABC reporter shares Wooten’s scruples. Just two days before Wooten went public with his frustration, his colleague Dan Harris conducted an instructive interview with Abdul Jabar, a Pakistani doctor who treated several civilians, including a young boy, who said they’d been injured during an American attack. Is it the Monitor’s imagination, or is Harris actively soliciting anti-American remarks?
Harris: How do you feel when you see these kids?
Jabar: I feel very sad.
Jabar: Yes, my sympathies are with the Afghanis.
Harris: Angry at the United States?
Harris then signed off with the following commercial for the Taliban: “Everyone we spoke with at this tiny hospital said the ongoing raids have made the population here and across the border angry at the U.S. and supportive of the Taliban.”
This is news? Just try to imagine a journalist during World War II finding himself behind enemy lines during the Allies’ bombardment of Germany and filing a similar story from a German hospital: “Everyone we spoke with said the ongoing raids have made the population here angry at the Allies and supportive of the Nazis.”
On the home front, meanwhile, the “Today” show’s Ann Curry was worried about the New York City public school system’s new policy of having students recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “The American Civil Liberties Union is very concerned about your resolution,” Curry remarked to the head of the school board. “They are saying basically that those young people who choose not to participate could be targeted for harassment.
“And the New York City school system has a lot of people, a lot of students and perhaps even teachers who are not American citizens, isn’t that correct?…. Perhaps the school systems across the country really should be thinking about renewing a lesson about tolerance?”
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org