the pentagon's ongoing stagemanaging of its war on terrorism is making media independence a chronic casualty. A deal between the White House and major U.S. networks and news outlets not to publish or air anything endangering American troops has turned the gatekeepers of truth into mere parrots.Take the case of the press disaster unfolding over the U.S. treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners shipped to Cuba.
At first, the Pentagon seemed to want to make a show of the captured foe destined for Guantanamo, parading them before the cameras in Kandahar with hands and feet shackled and heads covered by hoods.
But then they seemed to wake up to the idea that the pictures might be a public relations nightmare. Quickly, government strategists switched into damage-control mode, asking U.S. news organizations not to air or publish the pics. Their explanation? The Red Cross might view the images as a violation of the prisoners' right to dignity under international law.
Later it came across news wires that the Red Cross had not raised an objection with the Pentagon at all.
Now that it appears their own government has fibbed to them, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), the largest group of editors of daily newspapers in the U.S., is feeling miffed.
ASNE has sent a letter to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding the release of the photos. (News organizations apparently turned the pix over to the Pentagon when they agreed not to air or publish them.) So far, stony silence from Rumsfeld.
Why would news outlets agree to such a demand in the first place?
Anders Gyllenhall, an ASNE spokesperson and editor of the News and Observer in North Carolina, says editors were concerned that the photos, if published, could be used by pro-Taliban forces as propaganda.
But he also admits to feeling slighted, and wonders if the U.S. press has bought into the Pentagon view of the war too much.
"It's a whole new kind of warfare, and we don't want to sound like we're being unduly critical," Gyllenhall says, but "how far are the notions of restrictive coverage going to go here?"
Jim Naureckas, an editor and media analyst with the New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, says "This is just another example of the government using censorship to protect its image. This war on terrorism is turning out to be more carefully stage-managed than even the Gulf War."
The clearest evidence of censorship, besides this latest dust-up, is the U.S. media's handling of the issue of civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch's and Amnesty International's concern over civilian deaths in Afghanistan and their call for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs, for example, were not widely reported by the U.S. press -- and not at all by ABC, CBS or NBC.
Even the liberal New York Times, the newspaper of record south of the border, has shied away from the issue of civilian casualties, while reputable counterparts like the Times in the UK have published accounts of civilians being chased and killed by American helicopters.
It was only on Tuesday (January 22) that the New York Times weighed in, in any meaningful way, on the U.S. treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda detainees in Cuba -- and then only to take a shot at critical British parliamentarians who can't possibly know what's really going on with prisoners 5,000 miles away in Guantanamo.
There's no telling how far the U.S. media is prepared to go in restricting its criticism of the Bush administration.
Says Naureckas,"By 2010 the Pentagon wont' tell us who we're at war with, because we won't need to know."firstname.lastname@example.org