[Wartawan AS semakin kecewa dengan perkembangan semasa dan
sudah mula mempertikaikan sikap kerajaan mereka. Tidak kurang
pula ada yang kini berdilema (antara profesionalisma dan
mengampu seperti Utusan Meloya). Wartawan sepatutnya menjadi
utusan rakyat - bukannya utusan kerajaan - barulah kerajaan itu
berkhidmat untuk rakyat. Apa yang berlaku sekarang ialah rakyat
(dan wartawan) yang perlu berkhidmat dan menjadi hamba kepada
kerajaan sehingga sanggup memeram kebenaran. - Editor]
Posted Wednesday, October 31, 2001, at 3:36 PM PT
Bad News Bearers
By William Saletan
Three weeks into the bombing of Afghanistan, American journalists
are beginning to declare the war a failure. Why? Because their
political bias in favor of their country is being overwhelmed by
professional biases that skew their coverage the other way,
undermining the morale of the United States rather than that of the
Taliban. Here's how it's happening.
- Vicarious doubt. American reporters worry that if they call the war
a failure, they'll look unpatriotic. But that doesn't stop them. They just
attribute the F-word to somebody else. They seldom identify a
source, preferring vague plural allusions. On CNN's Late Edition,
Wolf Blitzer asked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about bad
things "some people are suggesting" and "some critics are saying"
about the war. An article in this morning's New York Times began,
"Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word
'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations among government
officials and students of foreign policy."
"Haunt" illustrates a favorite method of vicarious criticism: the
immaculate verb. By this method, criticisms emerge magically rather
than through the mouths of the reporters who might otherwise appear
to be introducing them. At Monday's Pentagon press conference, one
reporter asked Rumsfeld about "criticisms and questions and
skepticism that have come up in the last several days." Another
rehashed "this frustration question that seems to be bubbling around."
The reason such questions "bubble around" is that reporters raise
and repeat them in a self-escalating cycle. Here's how it works. On
Friday, a reporter tells an admiral at a Pentagon briefing, "There is a
growing chorus now-it's still a small chorus, but it's getting louder-of
critics who are saying that the United States appears to be bogged
down." On Saturday, under the headline "New Sense of Impatience
Is Emerging," the Los Angeles Times cites the "bogged down"
question as evidence that doubts have "crystallized" as "the military
faces increasingly skeptical questions." On Sunday, ABC's Cokie
Roberts opens her interview with Rumsfeld by noting, "There've been
stories over the weekend that give the perception that this war after
three weeks is not going very well."
Taliban officials don't have to address such vicarious questions,
stories, and perceptions about their troubles, because any Afghan
journalist, government official, or "student of foreign policy" who tried
to make such a question bubble up would be executed.
- Expectations game. Since Oct. 7, we've killed a lot of Taliban
soldiers and destroyed a lot of Taliban infrastructure without losing an
American soldier in combat. But according to the media, that's not the
story. The story is that we're falling short of "expectations." As
Roberts put it to Rumsfeld: "Is the war just not going as well as you
had hoped it would?" Expectations, like doubts, appear and grow by
magic. At Monday's Pentagon briefing, a reporter told Rumsfeld that
the emerging chorus for ground troops "tends to push this expectation
flow against" his defense of the air campaign. The dynamics of
"expectation flow" were left unexplained.
That's unfortunate, because the adjustment of expectations is as
important as our progress in meeting them. The New York Times
reported Tuesday that according to its latest poll, "Americans for the
first time are raising doubts about whether the nation can accomplish
its objectives in fighting terrorism at home and abroad, including
capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, saving the international
alliance from unraveling and protecting people from future attacks."
The Times headlined its front-page story, "Survey Shows Doubts
Stirring on Terror War." But the doubts expressed in the poll weren't
about the whole war. Arguably, the war can be won without killing
Bin Laden, maintaining a permanent global coalition, or keeping the
United States perfectly free of terrorism. Certainly, victory is more
plausible if those definitions of success are surrendered. From that
point of view, the public's lowered expectations make the war on
terror more sustainable, not less.
Taliban leaders don't have to explain discrepancies between
performance and expectations, because Afghan journalists don't dare
acknowledge such discrepancies.
- Subjectivity. American journalists think of us as the war's subjects
and the Taliban as the war's objects. We think and act; the Taliban
budges or doesn't budge. This framework helps the Taliban, because
only the subjects of a war are expected to rethink their behavior. In
briefings and interviews, reporters often ask Rumsfeld whether the
United States has "miscalculated" or "underestimated" the Taliban
and whether our bombing raids "create new recruits" for the enemy.
They don't ask whether Taliban leaders ought to re-evaluate their
behavior in light of our violent response to their recalcitrance.
- Self-importance. On Tuesday's front page, the New York Times
presented its poll results in the context of "threats about anthrax
unfolding virtually every day and little discernible progress in the air
campaign against the Taliban." Little discernible progress? The air
campaign has inflicted far more death and destruction on the Taliban
than the anthrax letters have inflicted on us (four deaths so far). By
discounting Taliban deaths and treating even "threats" to Americans
as far more significant, we set ourselves up for psychological defeat
after any exchange of casualties.
- Coalition fragility. We have an international coalition. The Taliban
doesn't. In absolute terms, that makes us stronger. But in relative
terms, it makes us weaker. It's easier to lose pieces of a coalition than
it is to lose pieces of one country or regime. Because the media
focus on momentum shifts, Pakistan's presence in our coalition since
the onset of the war isn't news, but Pakistan's possible exit from that
coalition is big news. That's why Rumsfeld spent the weekend on
ABC and CNN answering questions about Pakistan's government
"getting impatient" and "the coalition falling apart." Tuesday's
Washington Post front page distilled the media's sense of a
Pakistan-provoked momentum shift: "Pressure to Curtail War Grows."
- Offensive posture. We're playing offense, and the Taliban is
playing defense. In absolute terms, it's better to be on offense. But in
relative terms, it's better to be on defense, because stalemate is
interpreted as a victory for the defense. Reporters keep pressing
Rumsfeld to explain why the bombing is limited, why the Taliban
remains in power, and why Bin Laden "is still at large" (never mind
that he's pinned down and can't operate freely). Any cutback in
bombing during Ramadan will be portrayed as a retreat. It doesn't
matter that we'll be bombing the other guys. What matters is that we'll
be bombing them less heavily than before.
- Boredom. Journalists demand news. If the United States fails to
provide news in the form of measurable success, journalists will make
that failure itself the news. Last week, a reporter asked Rumsfeld,
"What can the Pentagon do to keep the American public engaged in
this, [so] that a certain amount of boredom doesn't set in, as with
Iraq? You know, every now and then we'd go and we'd bomb a little
something, and everybody yawned. Unless there's a bombing here
every month, how do we really keep the public engaged?" The
question revealed nothing about the efficacy or inefficacy of the
bombing of Iraq. What it revealed was that the reporter equated
military success with news value.
This is a big reason why Rumsfeld is being bombarded with questions
about getting "bogged down" in a campaign that "doesn't appear to
be going anywhere," hamstrung by an "impatient" coalition that's
"falling apart." Reporters themselves are feeling impatient and bogged
down in a story that seems not to be going anywhere. They want to
announce that something is falling apart. If they don't find that story in
the Taliban, they'll find it in the coalition. "Do you believe that you
now, in terms of the public image, have gone into a defensive
posture?" a reporter asked Rumsfeld Tuesday. The secretary could
have replied: Sure I have. And you're the one who's put me
William Saletan is a Slate senior writer.