The media missed the story in Afghanistan

The following article is from Jonathan Power, appearing in the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF) web site, January 2002. The article looks some aspects the media have not often discussed. The original article can be found on line at

The media missed the story in Afghanistan
By Jonathan Power
January 16, 2002

LONDON - The media has paid for its mistake of believing in George Bush's war against the Taliban. At the end of the day it is pretty clear that in the supposed objective of the war, the hunting down of Osama bin Laden, the trail has gone cold. The scorecard of deaths reveals that not only have more civilian Afghanis died than Americans in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but the number of journalists killed in action was eight times the total of American soldiers.

Yet by and large the Western media have swallowed the White House hype wholesale. Not only was it generally considered a just and necessary war, they devoted all their considerable resources - and more, even to the point of financial exhaustion and the exploitation of the very lives of their reporters - to covering it in excruciating detail.

War, sure enough, provides the journalistic rush of adrenalin that keeps old editors young and persuades young journalists that this is the way to make their careers. Too many of them overlook the wise words of one of the greatest journalists of them all, Walter Lippmann, who observed, "News and truth are not the same thing. The function of news is to signalise an event. The function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts."

Of course, the best papers published the voice of the occasional dissident. The conservative paper in Spain, El Mundo, has been surprisingly open to anti-war contributors, and columnists Simon Jenkins of the London Times and William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune (but who inside America?) have been among the strongest voices of dissent. But set against the outpourings of the news pages, the television coverage and the backbone of the editorial comment these have been solitary voices crying in the wilderness.

They didn't get it all right by any means. They underestimated the effectiveness of modern day American airpower and they overstated the malaise in the Islamic world, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - there was no popular uprising in favour of the fundamentalist extremists. But on the essentials they were right - bin Laden and his henchmen would not be laid low by this kind of war, Afghanistan's political structure would remain precarious, and America would not change its spots and overnight become a progressive force for international cooperation, the supporter of a reinvigorated UN, the imposer of a settlement between Israel and Palestine and the country that would no longer walk away from the growing and disturbing problem of failed states.

It is these issues that should have been the focus of the press coverage from the start, not the mock-heroics of aircraft carriers, Special Forces and the stunt work of the young pilots in the sky. Yet the Western press were easily intimidated by the near unanimity of the political class into going along with the essentials of the war. The BBC early on even apologised for letting a studio debate run away with itself and become too critical of America.

The problem of terrorism remains. I have little doubt that although America will remain the prime target, Europe, in particular my home country, Britain, will be a target too. There is, however, no way that this type of terrorism can be fought by either conventional war nor by the construction of a defensive missile shield. Indeed, if America now extends the war to Somalia, the Sudan, Yemen and Indonesia, as is the talk, it will end up bogged down, counterproductive and, most dangerous of all for the rest of us, profoundly angry, the condition of those who back themselves into hopeless quagmires.

The hard answers don't go away. We are back to where we were 1993 when the World Trade Centre was first attacked. We need good police work to track down these terrorists. Then when they are found - as bin Laden was in 1996 in the Sudan - we need governments which are ready (which the Clinton Administration was not) to send him and his likes for trial in a U.S. civilian courtroom or, better still, in the International Criminal Court.

Beyond that we need the West together with the rest of the world to grapple with the problems that breed terrorism - lack of political progress in the Middle East, first and foremost, and the continued tolerance for deep poverty and growing income inequality in many parts of the Third World. As The Economist has just reported, for $25 per rich-country citizen invested in low cost health services in the poorest parts of the world a colossal number of lives could be saved and immeasurable suffering relieved. Now that would be a start. And that, dear editor, would not only be a good story, but one to stay with.

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