New York -- William Randolph Hearst, the legendary U.S. newspaper tycoon, assigned an artist to provide sketches of a Cuban insurrection against Spanish rule during the Spanish-American war in 1898. Upon his arrival in Havana, however, the artist wired a message to his boss saying that everything was quiet in Cuba and he saw no signs of any war. This elicited from Hearst a reply often quoted to symbolize the arrogance and the power of U.S. news media.
"You provide the pictures," Hearst told the artist, "and I'll provide the war."
More than a century later, international journalists evoke the Hearst mentality as they ponder their role and responsibility in covering conflict, whether in Afghanistan or the Middle East. U.S. media -- and television in particular -- came in for a drubbing at a recent seminar here on "News versus Propaganda: The Gatekeeper's Dilemma."
Mathatha Tsedu, deputy chief of news at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), said the strength of Cable News Network (CNN) was its ability to bring events to the world in a timely manner, but expressed "terrible disappointment" that CNN had agreed with the U.S. administration not to air a taped message from Osama bin Laden, suspected of masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Using the administration's declaration of a "war against terrorism," Tsedu asked; "A war involves two sides. If the world could hear what President George W. Bush and Pentagon officials had to say, why could it not hear bin Laden? And why were announcements made by the Pentagon considered facts?" He also argued that media have yet to fulfil a crucial role in helping change what he perceived as the mindset of the average U.S. citizen, namely that every Muslim is a bin Laden. "It is not just writing a single story. It warrants a complete reassessment of how the media covers people and regions," Tsedu said.
Hafez al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, said U.S. reporters and news anchors increasingly were wrapping themselves with the U.S. flag in a public display of undisguised patriotism.
As an example of the blurring of the thin line dividing coverage from collaboration, al-Mirazi highlighted the case of Geraldo Rivera, a talk show host dispatched to Afghanistan as a war correspondent. Last week, Rivera admitted he was roaming the war-ravaged country armed with a pistol. He said that although he carried the weapon for self- protection, he would not hesitate to shoot bin Laden if he encountered the fugitive in "enemy territory."
Karen Curry, CNN's New York bureau chief, said she believes her network has done quite a good job, contextually, of covering the situation in Afghanistan. The network, she said, already had a team on the ground and CNN had never lost track of the country and had covered the political and social issues as best as it could.
Last month, Walter Isaacson, chairman of CNN, sent a memo to his foreign correspondents urging them to redouble their efforts "to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their [Taliban's] vantage or perspective." Isaacson said images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities should be "balanced" with reminders that the Taliban regime was harboring murderous terrorists.
Addressing the Middle East conflict, Steven Williams, senior editor of the British Broadcasing Corporation (BBC), said that although many U.S. media outlets were what might be considered good, about 90 percent appeared to offer a saccharine-coated version of events that is, by and large, aligned with the Israeli camp. "I think, therefore, the American public is being ill-served. The BBC offered a different perspective and we have had a fantastic response in the U.S., perhaps because people were seeing the story in a different way for the first time. We are far from being perfect, but we have been extraordinarily blunt," he added.
Opponents of the war in Afghanistan also are being kept out of most TV talk shows. On one rare occasion when anti-war activists appeared, on a "Nightline" news program aired nationwide last month, viewers were cautioned in advance. "Some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don't have to listen. But if you do, you should know that dissent sometimes comes in strange packages," Nightline host Ted Koppel told viewers in a preamble to the nightly broadcast.
No bold solutions to age-old problems of media coverage emerged from the seminar, but participants did enjoy the odd, albeit painful, quip. Some U.S. news networks have used the term "our planes" so often, said one participant, that viewers may have got the mistaken impression that targets in Afghanistan were being bombed not by the U.S. military, but by U.S. TV networks that had deployed their own warplanes.