Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

by Jillian Burt

19 September 2007


The Golden Rule #8

By Chris Justice

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

With so many reflections and images of 9/11 resurfacing last week, and a reinvigorated national debate about the future of Iraq bubbling once again, I cannot help but think of Afghanistan. Then my mind wanders…to the 1942 classic Casablanca and its many lessons about coping with war. I’m reminded of Rick and Ilsa, how they’d always have Paris, and how war shapes our collective memories.

Then, it wanders to George Bush and Dick Cheney and how, amidst so many failures in Iraq, they can so easily and conveniently turn to Afghanistan and reminisce about their successes in that forgotten war. Like Bogie and Bergman, Bush and Cheney will always have Afghanistan and its successes to trumpet their many victories in the War on Terrorism; however, an elephant lurks, and it’s not the Republican Party. It’s Bush and Cheney’s lies, fuzzy long-term memory, and numerous manipulations: they never had Afghanistan, not in 2001 and not today.

Why are more Americans not outraged and harping on the failures in Afghanistan? One reason is the way U.S. media has covered this war, which is now almost six years old. But coverage alone is not the problem. A few journalists are covering stories there well; what producers do with those stories and how they prioritize Afghanistan are larger issues. How can Americans learn about Afghanistan if they have no idea what is happening there? The American Journalism Review and The Columbia Journalism Review, among a few other media outlets, have been reporting information about Afghanistan since the war began, but they are a small minority, and I wonder how many journalists are listening.

In July 2007, Bill Gentile, director and producer of Dateline: Afghanistan was interviewed and discussed coverage in Afghanistan. Gentile said, “In Afghanistan…the cultural barriers are much more significant and harder to break through.” Gentile said language barriers, cultural mores, and customs along with the cost of reporting and being an “American” journalist in Afghanistan all present challenges. He reported that approximately a dozen reporters are currently in Afghanistan, and added, “because of cutbacks, the number of mainstream correspondents is being reduced significantly all around the world, even in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where we need them the most.” He said the prioritization of news is a major problem: “part of the problem is not what these men and women are reporting on, but what their editors decide to put on television, in the paper, on the radio. I think some of the editors in our country have lost the sense of their role, and their role is about more than just publishing or broadcasting only what that lowest common denominator wants to see. Part of their role is to actually set the agenda of what Americans see and read and listen to.”

In April, Paul McLeary wrote about this questionable coverage. He stated, “At different points over the past of couple of years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — especially Afghanistan — have for a variety of reasons fallen from the front pages of our major daily newspapers.” He was particularly concerned about “Iraq fatigue,” a phenomenon that, if given credence, may further reduce coverage of these important wars.

Since the war in Afghanistan started, journalists have been appalled at the lack of coverage and attention it has received in mainstream U.S. media. These articles reveal how rampant this neglect has been: “Quitting Kabul”; “U.S. Press Corps in Afghanistan Up 20 Percent!”; “The Forgotten War”“What Happened to Afghanistan?”; and “The Worrying Case of an Ambitious Afghan Journalist”. They trumpet the usual suspects for this poor coverage: it’s too dangerous and costly, cultural barriers pervade, the terrain is too challenging to traverse, Iraq is more important, etc.

But those are excuses: soldiers are dying, money is being wasted, the poppy trade is booming, terrorists are reforming, chaos is reigning, and Americans deserve to know.

Afghanistan was a litmus test for our efforts in Iraq. Although each war is uniquely different, like all wars, they share similarities, too. If we knew in March 2003 what was accurately happening with our military efforts in Afghanistan, and if we knew about its continued failures since, how eager would we have been to start another war in Iraq or, once there, to dramatically change our course in Iraq?

And reporting in Afghanistan isn’t getting easier. Radio Free Europe reported several months ago that crackdowns in reporting issued by the Afghan government are restricting information that “weakens public morale” or harms “the national interest”. In a democracy, that’s called censorship, and democracies, contrary to their propaganda, are something Bush and Cheney have never been very good at establishing. 

Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore

Topics: media
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