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The “fog of war” is a hardy perennial of journalistic cliché. And the Bush administration hasn’t exactly helped clear things up. Quite the opposite. It’s cranked up the fog machine, cloaking military actions in secrecy and severely restricting media access to them.
The fog has lifted a bit since Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, though the clarity is not a result of a new U.S. military openness with the press. Rather, it’s been reporterspreviously camped out in a narrow sliver of Afghanistan controlled by the alliancewho’ve given Americans a clearer view of the war.
These reporters have also proved that talk of a “new” war, for the press, at least, is dead wrong. The foundations of the increasingly vigorous journalism Americans have seen in the last few weeks are built on war reporting’s “old” standbys: tenacity in gaining access and a keen, unflinching gaze. That we know about what happened in the brutal supression of a late November prison riot staged by the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif, for instance, is because of this old-school journalistic ethic.
National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep’s reports from Afghanistan on the fall of the Taliban embody the gritty and unbiased war journalism that listeners need so they can accurately assess what’s happening on the front lines. I reached Inskeep (with whom I shared a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism in 1999) in Afghanistan via e-mail and asked him for his thoughts about the front-line beat in 2001.
“I think the rule is to believe only what you see,” replies Inskeep. “If somebody says they captured a city, you have to go look. And you don’t report it as true until you’re standing in the town square looking at their troops going by. The other rule is not to assume that you know anything or to imagine you’re really on the inside. [Pulitzer Prize-winning Korean War correspondent] Homer Bigart, it was said, always came into a situation acting like a know-nothing, and asking to be educated about everything starting with the basics, and ended up learning everything.”
Access remains one of Inskeep’s prime concernseven on the front lines. “Access is certainly an issue here when you are dealing with U.S. military types,” writes Inskeep. “Nobody has really had any decent access to U.S. forces. The Northern Alliance troops, by contrast, are frighteningly open and accessibleto the point where you wonder how they don’t all get blown up by terrorists and guerillas.”
Inskeep also observes that war reporting has a universality that extends beyond particular conflicts: “Soldiers often seem to have this very distinctive mixture of sophistication and innocenceexperience and naiveté. It’s a heartbreaking combination, made more extreme in the case of the Northern Alliance because so many of the soldiers are 16 or 15 or even 14….Yet despite the many, many cultural differences, I really think there might be something similar between sitting on a hillside with the mujaheddin and sitting on a hillside with GIs in WWII. So I suppose the rules of the old wars do apply.”
To place the coverage of the “new” war in further context, I also talked with two old hands in the war journalism fieldCNN’s Gulf War correspondent Charles Jaco (an award-winning news-radio host on St. Louis’ KMOX-AM) and former Oslobodjenje editor Kemal Kurspahic, who shepherded the Sarajevo newspaper through the worst years of that city’s siege. (The compelling story of how the paper was published from a bomb shelter on the front line of the siege constitutes the bulk of Kurspahic’s 1997 book, As Long as Sarajevo Exists.)
Jaco argues that American media’s coverage of the conflict has been good, but that foreign news sources have been even better. (Jaco’s own Web sitewww.charlesjaco.comgathers extensive links for such resources.) “The British papers are doing a bang-up job,” says Jaco in a telephone interview. “Of course, their government is friendlier to their press than our government is to ours.”
With a glance back to his own foreign assignments, which have ranged from Panama to Baghdad, Jaco says that closing the distance is a key to successful coverage. “The quality of information is always better when you have someone on the ground,” he says. “You can’t cover a story from 50 or 100 or 1,000 miles away.”
Jaco cites the Marines as the U.S. military branch with the most PR savvy. “And it’s shown in the last few days,” he says, citing the increased media presence of actual Marines speaking in news reports. Yet Jaco remains critical of the administration’s overall restrictions on access. “[It’s] silly and self-defeating,” he says. “And anyway, it’s irrelevant.” He insists that the stories will continue to emerge as Afghanistan opens up. “One thing you lose [from the present policy] is that you’re not able to tell the American side of the story,” he says. “You hear [only] Taliban, and Northern Alliance.”
I reached Kurspahic by e-mail in Vienna, where he works as the spokesperson for the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. His view of war coverage from Europe is also colored by his own experience. “I believe [war coverage] is always a very personal, intimate experience,” writes Kurspahic. “And my experience was definitely different than experiences of international reporters coming to cover the siege of Sarajevo and terror against Bosnia. They could come and go back to their homes, in New York, Rome or Paris.” At Oslobodjenje, recalls Kurspahic, the staff “covered our own war, with our families exposed to daily shelling and sniper fire.”
Kurspahic says that editing in such circumstances boiled down to “the integrity of our reporting and endless, agonizing self-examinationhow to keep a paper going when they kill your small-town correspondent reporting on the fall of his town (Kjasif Smajlovic in Zvornik, the first journalist killed in the Bosnian war); when your photographer gets killed while taking pictures of Sarajevans waiting for water (Salko Hondo); or when many of your colleagues get wounded by snipers covering life and death in Sarajevo. You find out that journalism, under any conditions, is simply a profession, and your duty is to report as long
as you livelike my killed colleagues did.”
Kurspahic cites a number of U.S. journalists who covered Bosniaincluding Pulitzer Prize winners Roy Gutman (Newsday), John Burns (the New York Times), and David Rhode (Christian Science Monitor, who now writes for the New York Times)as exemplifying the “best” in war reporting.
“Since a war reporter literally covers life-or-death issues,” Kurspahic writes, “and the media have the powerat least in democratic societiesto influence public opinion and decision making, it is important that a war reporter is not only a good writer, courageous, able to reach often dangerous places and report accurately, but above all the journalist who understands the causes of conflict and is guided by the highest ethical values.”
“By reporting the war from the victims’ perspective,” says Kurspahic of the three reporters he cites, “they also avoided the trap of sick neutrality, proving that you can be perfectly objective without necessarily being neutral.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Afghanistan coverage, Kurspahic writes, is what he calls the “liberating character of American military power. [The] Taliban systematically oppressed, tortured, and killed many times more people than the U.S. bombing,” writes Kurspahic, “and when you see the changes taking place in the lives of Afghani women, among the youth of Kabul, and in the liberated cities’ streets, you understand that with all the pain inflicted by bombing it was not just a retaliation for terrorist attacks against American cities, but potentially also a new beginning for that long-suffering country and its people.” Richard Byrne