13, lays in his hospital bed three months after having his leg
amputated due to a bomb dropped by American warplanes. He said
he was not angry with the United States because they were not
by Dieter Wild
It will be a while before the world will have fully digested September
11, 2001 - especially the American press. Indeed, the U.S. media
has not been so radically shaken since the Vietnam War.
Since last November, newsrooms of big TV networks and newspapers have
caved in to public criticism that the media was not patriotic enough.
People claimed several things unpatriotic: reports - especially
photos - of Afghans maimed and killed by U.S. bombs and rockets;
mention of more possible terrorism targets in the United States; speeches
from Osama bin Laden; and articles that skeptically weighed the meaning
and impact of the American military counterstrokes.
Thousands of readers, listeners and viewers protested with letters,
calls and emails against this irresponsible or even treacherous coverage
by ego-driven journalists, who purportedly valued their careers more
than the protection of American lives. The fact that the public's
reproaches were taken to heart says a lot about the current condition
of the American media. Chairman of CNN Walter Isaacson even mandated
that each mention of civilian victims in Afghanistan should be offset
by the mention of Sept. 11 victims, according to a Washington Post article
from Oct. 31. On NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, ex-senator Alan Simpson declared
that journalists should ask themselves whether they were "first
Americans or first journalists." Simpson opined that "all
this crap about Bin Laden and dying babies" would make U.S. soldiers
appear to be the bad guys.
Memo to the reporters
of the Panama City News Herald (Oct. 31 2001):
"Per Hal's order, DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing
civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. ["Hal"
is the News Herald executive editor Hal Foster.] Our sister paper
in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds
of threatening e-mails and the like.
Also per Hal's order, DO NOT USE wire stories which lead
with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They
should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs
rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only
exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar
facility and kills scores or hundreds of children. See me if there
are any special situations.(...)
Failure to follow any of these or other standing rules could
put your job in jeopardy."
But in an ongoing study of foreign press reports, professor Marc Herold
at the University of New Hampshire showed that by early December, more
than 3,500 civilians had been killed by American bombs in Afghanistan
(www.democracynow.org). "In foreign newspapers several reports
about the civilian victims were to be found," writes Herold. "The
U.S. press reported almost nothing about them." So is the freedom
of press no longer worth much in the USA?
It's a difficult question to answer. Those who vented their anger
in letters to the editor are not necessarily in the majority. A Nov.
28 Pew Research Center study showed public opinion is more divided.
Of the 1,500 people interviewed, 53 percent think that "it is more
important for the government to be able to censor stories it believes
could threaten national security than for the media to be able to report
news it sees as in the national interest." But 64 percent think
journalists should be "neutral" rather than "pro-American",
and 73 percent preferred reporting from "all points of view, including
those of countries unfriendly to the United States." From this
mixed data, Pew concluded this: "Despite its support for military
censorship, the public is not comfortable with the media substituting
propaganda for news, nor does it prefer the press to be a lap dog rather
than a watchdog."
So what is the media to learn from all this? They should not try to
adapt their coverage to what they think their audience desires. Because
this audience - not only in America and not only in the current
crisis - is a complex being, whose demands and preferences change
quickly, and therefore can only serve the media as parameters in a very
Dieter Wild, former vice editor-in-chief of weekly newsmagazine
Der Spiegel, teaches journalism at the University of Leipzig. This article
originally appeared in the German media review Message (4/2001). Translated
by Nicole Balzereit.
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