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Civilian Casualties Simply 'Aren't News'



by Matt Bivens 


The Moscow Times 12 November. 12, 2001
Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca   14  November 2001

Here is the text of a memo circulated to editors of a small-town Florida newspaper:

"DO NOT USE photos on Page 1-A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like ... "DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children."

The memo can be found on www.fair.org, the web site of FAIR, a media watchdog group. There one can also read that the chairman of CNN has argued it would be "perverse" to focus on civilian casualties, and has instructed reporters to, basically, justify such deaths with editorializing commentary.

One memo at CNN offers sample language for news anchors to close out such reports: "We must keep in mind ... that these U.S. military actions are in response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent people in the United States." Other journalists have argued that civilian casualties simply "aren't news." On Fox television's "Special Report with Brit Hume" last week, for example, Hume wondered if the deaths of women and children should be "big news," because "civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really."

Mara Liasson from National Public Radio and Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report both agreed. "Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable," Liasson said. "Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news," Barone said. I read all this as moral and intellectual cowardice. Of course civilian casualties are news, and of course they require no accompanying editorializing. Just report what is happening! I'm bewildered that there are journalists out there arguing otherwise.

Consider this: For several years now, the United Nations has been feeding about a third of Afghanistan, or about 7.5 million people, nearly all of them women and children. The UN has in past been able to work with the Taliban on this. (This is the part where I offer my obligatory "I hate the Taliban too" comment.)

Since we began bombing Oct. 7, however, aid agencies have been warning that the system of food supply into Afghanistan is in peril. There is no more law and order; local UN truck drivers are afraid of being bombed; the Taliban are ever-more suspcious of UN workers and are harassing them; in short, a system upon which at least 7.5 million people depend is falling apart. Aid workers talk of only being able to feed a half or a quarter of that number, which is another way of saying we could very soon have from 3 million to 5 million dead women and children in Afghanistan. Now if that happens, Americans and Russians will never be able to argue that the war on terror was anything other than a war on Muslims. And if that happens, we will have all "lost the war." Full stop.

So where are our journalists? If they don't have the morals to point to an avoidable famine about to kill millions, then do they at least have the patriotism to want to win the war?

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute, at www.thenation.com.

Copyright, Mat Bivens, 2001, for fair use only.

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/APR111A.html