My latest post for Big Journalism...
This CNN report by Nic Robertson on funerals for alleged Libyan victims of allied bombing, including civilians, is model of hard-nosed reporting; of refusing to swallow government propaganda, and of speaking truth to power. And this should come as no surprise, since CNN’s track record in challenging Arab dictators’ claims of casualties caused by the American military goes back...
Sorry... CNN’s track record of uncritically accepting Arab dictators’ claims of casualties caused by American bombing goes back to the first Gulf War, when Peter Arnett parroted the Iraqi regime’s version of the Al-Amiriyah shelter incident. During the final stages of the air campaign leading up to the allied ground assault into Kuwait, US aircraft bombed a Baghdad command and control facility; the regime claimed it served a dual purpose as a civilian air raid shelter, and that some 400 old men, women and children were killed. While no transcript of CNN’s coverage apparently survives on line, this self-penned puff-piece by Arnett includes his version of the incident; for a US government account, see the case study in this overview from George W. Bush’s White House of Saddam’s record of faking or deliberately causing civilian casualties to exploit for propaganda purposes (And while this is not the place to revisit the claims and counter claims, I couldn’t help but note that reports by CNN, the BBC and others stating that the casualties were old men, women and children also mentioned that many bodies were so badly burned as to be barely identifiable as human).
The tone and balance of CNN’s reporting at the time, along with that of other western media, can be gauged from their later reporting on the Saddam regime's relentless milking of the incident to whip up anti-American fervour. In a story of over 300 words on the state-controlled commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the bombing, Brent Sadler managed to find space for one off-hand, single-line reference to US claims that the shelter was a legitimate military target. A couple of years later, the same regime propaganda was being rehashed for the ninth anniversary - in a report which, while again brushing off the US military's account in one sentence, uncritically carried the platitudes of convicted war criminal Tariq Aziz and the Iraqi information minister alongside the words of grieving relatives of the dead. In February 2003, Sadler was again among the mourners for the twelfth anniversary, with the same auto-complete nod to the US version (Since the search of CNN's archives uncovered no mention of the tenth anniversary, it has to be assumed that breaking news forced CNN to bump what would no doubt have been day-long coverage, complete with a reading of the names of the dead and a moving eulogy by Saddam Hussein himself).
None of this is surprising when one considers that this is the same CNN that covered up Iraqi regime atrocities in the 1990s in order to maintain a bureau in Baghdad. And readers might remember that the same Nic Robertson who filed the report from Tripoli had allowed himself to be led by the nose by Hezbollah while covering their lies about the damage and casualties caused by Israeli air attacks on Lebanon in 2006. (Speaking of Lebanon, where’s the BBC’s Orla Guerin digging through the rubble in Tripoli and exaggerating the extent of the damage? It’s given that the Qaddafi regime would inflate civilian casualty figures, but there will doubtless be some, and the western media doesn’t seem to be going out of its way to find them).
While Roberston is right to be sceptical of Libyan government claims, his relentless
defence of the Obama administration’s conduct of the campaign pursuit of the truth causes him to go slightly overboard in trying to make his point; at the end of his report he admits that the fact that one of the coffins is seen to be empty might just be because the body has already been buried. Furthermore, how he knows that the shrouded bodies ‘appear’ to be those of adult males is questionable, and his observation that “there seems to be far more anger than there is grief” is curious, given that his network and others have covered so many funerals where Muslim casualties of western and Israeli action are celebrated as martyrs and used as a rallying point for resistance; indeed, when confronted with images of angry mobs and ululating woman at Arab funerals, we’ve been lectured by liberal media elites that it’s racist to say that Arabs don’t grieve as we in the west do.
Liberal media coverage of the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror was characterised by not merely by scepticism, but by an adversarial relationship in which undue, or at least equal, weight was given to the accounts of supposed victims of US aggression, even when the facts were unknown or unclear. Whether it’s CNN swallowing hook, line and sinker the later debunked account by fake Iraqi ‘human rights’ activists of the so-called Haditha Massacre, or the UK press reporting yet another wedding massacre, the underlying assumption was that it was the US military that was lying. But as The New York Times told us, with President Obama in the White house it’s now cool to wave the Stars and Stripes again, and there’s an anecdote that has the late actor and then liberal activist Ron Silver watching a US Air Force flypast at the first inauguration of President Clinton and observing that “those are our jets now” (Silver left the Democrats after 9/11 and supported the War on Terror). Such sentiments can be the only explanation for the fact that Robertson’s report sounds like a Pentagon press release rebutting enemy propaganda; and while I for one have no trouble with the media checking their ‘objectivity’ at the door when it comes to covering a conflict in which the forces of one’s own country are engaged, it seems unlikely that Robertson would have gone so far above and beyond the call of journalistic duty had the allegations of collateral damage been levelled against the administration of George W. Bush.