Friday, November 6, 2015

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN AMERICA: REST IN PEACE

Serious investigative journalism in America has long been on a death watch; deplorable coverage of the war in Syria by the major media networks has hammered in the last nail.

This conclusion applies mainly to broadcast media, though it should be noted that good journalism in print media, which has been eviscerated by downsizing (tens of thousands of reporters have lost their jobs), is also gasping for breath.  In both print and broadcast media, an aversion of their corporate owners to story lines that might incur disfavor with people in high places (lest they might lose the light tax and loose regulation privileges they enjoy) has scuttled many hard-hitting investigative stories. Reporters today understand where not to tread. An enterprising journalist may still go for it, but he knows his job may be on the line, as Mary Mapes and Dan Rather of CBS found out.
 
I recently returned from a vacation in Sweden and Switzerland where my source for nightly news was mainly CNN, though I was often also able to watch Al Jazeera English. The contrast in coverage of world events by a major American and a foreign network couldn’t have been sharper. Only Al Jazeera practiced what I consider good journalism. Its reporters stood out in asking tough questions and substantive follow-up questions in interviews with leading figures in the stories they were reporting. They were clearly highly informed on their topics, which allowed them to push further when interviewees evaded questions, offered obfuscating answers, or said things that weren't true. Event coverage on Al Jazeera included historical background, which enabled me to see the event in its historical context. CNN treated events as episodic.
 
The main focus of coverage during my trip (besides the Pope’s visit, which on US channels played with overdone adoration) was the Russian entry into the war in Syria. CNN, as well as other major US news outlets I watched, wholly accepted and reported the official Washington narrative about the Putin move: in order to bolster the sagging Assad regime, Russian bombing is purposely targeting moderate rebels in the Free Syrian Army; they are not bombing in areas where ISIS is present; in their air campaign, many civilians are being killed; and, President Putin has launched a power play aimed at extending Russian influence in the region.

Putin
Vladimir Putin: A Global Agenda?
From Al Jazeera and independent internet sources, I got a more in-depth picture. I learned that Russia has mainly bombed al-Qaeda in Syria and its affiliates, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, though it's likely to have also hit remnants of the largely collapsed Free Syrian Army..  The Obama Administration has designated these al-Qaeda offspring as "moderate rebels" apparently because they occasionally battle ISIS (or perhaps because they're supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey).  In the past we have also bombed these al-Qaeda groups.   It was also reported by Al Jazeera that on October 2, Russia hit ISIS targets in and around Raqqa. Not a word of this was reported on CNN.
 
In contrast to CNN, Al Jazeera also pointed out that civilians had also been killed in coalition bombing. It provided statistics drawn from credible sources.
 
I’ve become accustomed to weak investigative reporting in mainstream American media, but such unquestioning acceptance of an official Washington narrative took media fealty to a new low. Equipped with a fairly good sense of the history of our involvement in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, plus a natural skepticism of Washington “truths”—derived from years of being fed official lies, deceptions, evasions, and outright denials that later proved incorrect— I sensed something was wrong with what the American media was reporting. Where were the tough questions? Where was the historical context? Why the seeming amnesia about the history of civilian deaths? Was Putin being vilified for political reasons? Why are we giving a pass to Saudi and Turkish complicity in assisting Islamist rebels?  I was left wondering what was going on.
 
I don’t doubt that Putin’s move is intended primarily to bolster the sagging Assad regime and hence advance Russian interests, and it’s clear that civilians have been killed; after all this is what bombing campaigns usually do. What astonished me was the unquestioned assumption that the Obama administration knows precisely the whereabouts of moderate and extremist rebels. I was also irked by the failure to acknowledge that US bombing campaigns, however surgical the Pentagon claims they are, also kill civilians.
 
It seems to me that if we knew so precisely where the bad guys were we would have been more successful in eliminating them. The fact is, for years we have found it extremely difficult to identify groups in Syria we can confidently support. We tried to early in the Syrian conflict only to find that many of our new-found friends ended up joining Islamist rebel groups. And, much of the weaponry we provided ended up in the hands of jihadist fighters. This latter fact was underscored in our recent misplaced attempt to train and equip a force of moderates to fight against ISIS and other Islamist rebels, which reportedly produced only five fighters who were quickly captured. That’s not all; the US Central Command acknowledged in late September that some of American-trained Syrian fighters gave at least a quarter of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
 
What bugs me the most, however, is the utter hypocrisy in the American indignation about killing civilians. Though you wouldn’t know it from following accounts of the wars in the Middle East region from major US news outlets, the fact is that scores of civilians have been killed in US air campaigns. Although it’s impossible to get an exact number, photographic evidence, eye-witness accounts, and available corroborating NGO reports, leads to the inescapable conclusion that thousands have died.
 
In 2015 alone, the US-led coalition has conducted over 6000 air strikes. Over this time, the Pentagon, constantly boasting of the precision of its weapons, has admitted to only two civilian deaths! That’s right, just two. Lt. General John Hesterman, former combined forces air component commander, called the current air war against ISIS “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Major media outlets didn't question this boast and proudly reported it.  
 
Maybe our air war is the most precise and disciplined ever, but just two deaths is a ridiculous claim. In the first year of the war in Afghanistan, over 3000 civilian deaths were documented. In Iraq, aerial bombing in the first year resulted in over 2000 civilian deaths. In more than a decade of fighting, thousands of civilian deaths have been documented, many as a result of U.S. bombing. For 2015, an air war monitoring group called Airwars has documented at least 459 civilian deaths from the coalition bombing campaign. (To confirm a civilian death, Airwars requires at least two or more credible sources, supported by photographs, videos and biographical information about the victims.)
 
What is most astonishing about the US bombing of ISIS over the past year is that even after foreign and independent news reports about mass civilian casualty incidents, major media outlets have been reluctant to challenge the Pentagon’s unrealistic claims. One would think that any journalist that has covered and understands war would be extremely skeptical about unrealistic casualty figures. Whether because of erroneous intelligence, pilot error or collateral damage, aerial bombing will kill civilians, no matter how much one tries to avoid it. Common sense tells us this.
 
Kunduz Hospital II
Bombed-Out Kunduz Hospital
While in Switzerland I learned from Al Jazeera that on October 3 a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan was hit in a US attack that killed 22 people (up to 30 people now, according to the BBC), among them doctors and other medical personnel as well as patients, including three children. Dozens more were wounded. Doctors Without Borders, widely known by its French acronym, MSF, loudly protested and demanded an investigation by an impartial international body “under the clear presumption that a war crime had been committed.” Attempts by the US and Afghanistan governments to claim that Taliban fighters were using the hospital were indignantly dismissed by MSF. 

Doctors Without Borders OutragedThe official US response to the hospital bombing is typical of what we’ve come to expect in the years of dirty wars in the Middle East region. The first response is always to question the credibility of the reported event with a promise to get the facts. Excuses then change as evidence surfaces, usually from outside sources. True to form, The Obama Administration followed the usual sequence of responses. Its excuses changed from responding to "coming under fire," to “collateral damage,” to blaming the Afghanistan government, to saying it was a “tragic incident,” and, finally, as reported on October 27, to admitting that US Army Green Berets were aware it was a functioning hospital, but still requested the air strike because they believed it was under Taliban control—a claim MSF vehemently denied.

This latest revelation adds to the growing body of evidence that the internationally-run hospital was familiar to the American military, raising questions about whether the decision to attack it was in violation of international rules of war. The chain of command leading to the ill-fated decision to bomb is murky, as is always the case in trying to locate official responsibility in military matters.
 
The Obama Administration rebuffed MSF’s call for an independent investigation, expressing—as usual—confidence in investigations by the Defense Department, NATO, and by US and Afghan military officers. It referred to the Kunduz bombing as a “profound tragedy”-- a mistake it would get to the bottom of.
Kunduz Hospital Terrible Accident
A "Profound Tragedy"
A mistake? Perhaps.  Maybe the military did mistakenly believe the Taliban were operating from the hospital, though there is evidence the attack may have been intentional, but this is irrelevant in the eyes of international law; the presence of wounded patients inside would have violated standard American rules of engagement and the international law of war. (Mainstream journalists have not wavered from the "accident/mistake" scenario, despite new evidence, see: US Journalists Who Instantly Exonerated Their Government of the Kunduz Hospital Attack, Declaring it an Accident.) 
 
Civilians have become unfortunate victims in the ugly wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria; it’s what defines their ugliness. Russian bombing is no doubt killing civilians, but so have bombings by coalition forces. Putin is pursuing his own self-serving agenda, but so is the US. It’s what big powers are inclined to do.
 
There is no moral righteousness in these wars. The professed Washington claim it has been pursuing a “freedom agenda” to build stable democracies that respect human rights and abide by the rule of law (witness Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq) rings tragically hollow as events have unfolded (has “freedom” become a euphemism for dominion?). Since most Americans get their news from a corporate-owned, market-driven news media that plays to its consumers rather than truth, few have questioned the purposes of America’s use of military power.
 
I have long lamented that most Americans who watch broadcast news get it from Fox News, as several surveys have shown that these viewers are significantly less informed-- as well as more misinformed--than consumers of news from other sources (see: CONFIRMED-New-Study-Proves-That-Fox-News-Makes-You-Stupid). Watching  nightly news on CNN while in Europe helped me realize that misinforming viewers is not exclusive to Fox; it is a malady that afflicts all the major US networks.  As a strong believer in an informed citizenry, this is deeply troubling.

2 comments:

  1. Good morning Professor Ron-
    This spot-on piece about broadcast media brings to mind the movie Wag The Dog.
    My observations over the years suggest that the public has a comfort zone about national security that is not to be disturbed. Consequently, politicians and those who want healthy bottom lines placate that zone. The end result is a manipulated population wearing an array of rose colored glasses. The media has become the partner in crime rather than risk the fate of Dan Rather. Sad indeed.

    I too enjoy the reporting on Al Jazeera America. Likewise, I enjoy and agree with your viewpoints.

    Lynn Routt Swanson

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  2. I am not sure that any of this is all that new. Embedded journalists, whether in the White House, Congress or the military have for as long as I can remember been careful not to bite the hand that feeds them "the facts" for their reports. Otherwise sources quickly dry up. They know the deal: In a more candid moment, a news researcher for CBS News once remarked to me about the irony of her news unit, employees of a huge corporate entity, doing a story exposing the evils of corporate America. Oxymoronic. Fair reporting is a heavy lift. Back in the early 70s, The New York Times, a bible to some, revealed that it's slogan might better be "prints all the news that fits" when it came to its reporting on (read, vilification of) the Allende regime in Chile. Apparently, free elections are not that great if we don't like the results. Finally, I also found Al Jazeera America a refreshing source of news. Nonetheless, I am sure that they have their own biases. (As Khrushchev put it, nations may be neutral, individuals aren't.) The key is to remain skeptical and, as you have done above with the claims regarding civilian casualties of air strikes, rely on logic, common sense and a variety of sources of information. Unfortunately, easily finding the variety of source information is getting harder. One shouldn't have to be a scholar.

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