Reporters have to press harder about Afghanistan

Robert Jensen
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
fax:  (512) 471-7979
rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu

copyright Rahul Mahajan and Robert Jensen 2001

Newsday, November 14, 2001.

by Robert Jensen and Rahul Mahajan

AT A TIME when U.S. journalists could hardly have fallen in line more quickly and completely with government officials, it's ironic that the most common criticism of the news media has been that they have "gone negative" and been too critical in their reporting on the Afghanistan war.

The problem isn't that journalists have been asking too many critical questions but that they have not asked enough of the right critical questions. The Northern Alliance entrance into Kabul doesn't change the importance of those questions.

We all have a stake in this. A more independent press would better serve the most hawkish Americans as much as the doves. As citizens in a democracy, we all need the most complete information possible if we are to participate meaningfully.

For more than a month after Sept. 11, reporters rarely challenged administration claims about the need for war and the initial war effort. In television interviews, it was often hard to tell government spokespersons and journalists apart. In recent weeks, as the administration's conduct of the war in Afghanistan and handling of the anthrax crisis at home made some critical questions unavoidable, reporters have started asking officials - in extremely polite fashion - for explanations.

At the moment, however, most of the questions have been about the wisdom of particular tactics: Has the United States been bombing too much or too little? Should the United States launch a ground offensive? Going unasked and unanswered are more basic questions.

For example, international relief workers have made it clear that the U.S. bombing, which temporarily halted food distribution and continues to disrupt that work, risks precipitating an enormous humanitarian disaster as winter approaches. The retreat of the Taliban to their southern stronghold reduces, but does not eliminate, the problem.

However the conflict plays out in weeks to come, the question remains: Why has the United States taken such risks with the lives of the 7.5 million Afghans estimated to be in danger of starving?

It's not that the U.S. news media have made no mention of this issue, but that journalists have downplayed its importance and refused to press when officials brush off the questions with nonresponsive replies.

What if journalists were really committed to reporting all the news, instead of the news filtered through U.S. government spokespeople? Then perhaps the call for a bombing halt last month by Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, which was echoed by numerous other UN officials and private aid agencies, would have been a big story. It was - in the foreign press. In the United States, it was either ignored or buried.

That lack of attention has real effects. In Great Britain, more than half the people support a bombing halt, perhaps in part because they have heard much more in their news media about the impending humanitarian catastrophe.

This is not an argument for advocacy journalism, but simply for independent journalism. An independent press must be a reliable source for all relevant information. To be that, an independent press must be skeptical and critical. No matter what one's position on the war - pro, anti or confused - we all should want, and demand, such independence.

Journalists say that is indeed what they do, but the evidence so far suggests that skepticism has yet to be applied to basic ethical questions about this war.

The argument for a journalism that presses harder is rooted in the idea that in a democracy, we the people actually have a role in determining policy and don't simply follow the leaders. That means people need an independent source of information from a press that does not accept the statements of government officials as gospel.

Most people would agree with that during peacetime, but many argue that such journalism is a luxury we can't afford during wartime. Just the opposite is the case. If anything, a critical press is even more important during war because so much is at stake.

So let's stop sniping at journalists when they do ask critical questions, and press them to go even deeper. It may be that not only the vitality of our democracy but the lives of many innocent Afghans depend on it.


Rahul Mahajan serves on the National Board of Peace Action.  Robert Jensenis a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. Both aremembers of the Nowar Collective (www.nowarcollective.com).
Jensen is authorof Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream  (www.peterlangusa.com ). He canbe reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

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