June 3, 2002







Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Abdul Qasim, 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 targeting him.

The Self-Censors

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."

Source: www.poynter.org/medianews/memos.htm

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 limited way.

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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