"Officials say" journalism

Yet again, the American media misleads by uncritically printing unverified, false claims from the U.S. military

Published June 17, 2012 10:41AM (EDT)

(updated below)

On June 1, Taliban insurgents attacked a U.S. outpost in Khost, near the Afghan-Pakistani border. The official claim from coalition forces was that they "successfully repelled the attack" and "there are no reports of ISAF fatalities." But as The Washington Post details today, that claim was wildly misleading and in some cases outright false. The attack was "much worse than originally disclosed by the military as insurgents pounded the base with a truck bomb, killing two Americans and seriously wounding about three dozen troops . . . Five Afghan civilians were killed and more than 100 other U.S. troops were treated for minor injuries." Because "the statement did not report any casualties, nor that there was a truck bomb" -- indeed, the official statement claimed there were no casualties -- The Post today delicately concludes: "the scale of the attack and the extent of the U.S. casualties contrast with the official description." That's as close as an American establishment media outlet will dare get to stating that the American military made false statements (reality "contrasts with the official description").

Consider how this event was reported by the American media at the time it happened; from CBS News on June 2, relying on a report of the Associated Press:

This incident was quite significant since it was a major cause of the recent escalation of the Obama administration's drone attacks on Pakistan and their generally increased indifference to Pakistani concerns ("Now, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive issues, the administration's attitude is, 'What do we have to lose?'"). That it was reported so inaccurately is thus important.

Let's acknowledge some caveats. It's common for false claims to be made in war, either due to a desire to mislead or the proverbial "fog of war." It's perfectly appropriate for media outlets to include in their articles the claims of government and military officials. And there may be good reasons why the U.S. military wants to downplay the success of Taliban attacks.

But none of those caveats undermines the primary point worth making: the overwhelming reliance by American media outlets on the claims of government and media officials invariably produces propagandistic and false journalism and subverts the intended function of a free press. It's one thing merely to include the claims of "officials" in news accounts. But that is not what this reporting is.

Instead, what we see here is the standard template of American media reports: in the very first paragraph, media outlets typically state as fact what are nothing more than official assertions, and then append on to the end of the paragraph the rote phrase "officials say" (standard first paragraph: A, B and C happened today, officials say"). Over and over, this is the journalistic practice that converts media institutions into little more than glorified press release outlets for the U.S. government and military. They routinely write entire articles where the narrative and storyline are shaped exclusively by unverified claims of officials. There is a protected free press precisely because institutions are needed to check and scrutinize government claims -- based on the long-standing recognition that those in power tell self-serving lies, something which has happened over and over in the war in Afghanistan -- not uncritically amplify them and convert them into Truth under the guise of independent reporting.

But this "officials say" form of American journalism converts government claims into journalistic fact. In that regard, it's not merely redundant, though it is that: who needs a media outlet to re-print government press releases, when one can just go read those press releases on one's own? It's worse than redundant: it launders government claims as verified fact, as though they've been checked and confirmed by an independent media arbiter. That's why government officials love to "leak" falsehoods to reporters while hiding behind the shield of anonymity, rather than just themselves dissemintaing those falsehoods: not only does that practice shield them from accountability, but it masquerades their lies as "reporting." Today's example is just illustrative, and far from the most important: this is the model, more than any other, that shapes American journalism.

Notably, there were some press reports that accurately described this incident. Those were the ones that included not only the claims of the ISAF but also the Taliban. Here, for instance, was the June 1 article from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency (via NEXIS, partially online here):

Khost, 1 June: A major blast has taken place outside a base of the NATO forces in Sarabagh in Khost Province.

According to eyewitnesses sound light and heavy weapons' fire are now heard in the area following the blast and foreign helicopters are hovering over the area. . . .

The Taleban have claimed responsibility for the attack and their spokesman Zabihollah Mojahed told AIP that a group of armed Taleban carried out the attack.

Mojahed added: "A self-sacrificing Taleban member managed to drive an explosives-laden truck into the Sarabagh base and attack the dinner hall where the foreign forces were busy having their lunch. Then a group of Taleban armed with light and heavy weapons and suicide attack vests entered the base and started opening fire."

The Taleban spokesman said a large number of the foreign forces had been killed and wounded in the attack and that clashes were still going on.

That is vastly more accurate than the CBS/AP report. That's because it did not blindly rely on and uncritically repeat the claims of U.S. military officials. But it's taboo in American establishment media circles to treat official U.S. claims -- especially military claims -- as anything other than presumptively trustworthy and reliable (ABC News' Cokie Roberts: "I am, I will just confess to you, a total sucker for the guys who stand up with all the ribbons on and stuff, and they say it’s true and I’m ready to believe it"). That's why the American media propagandizes and misleads more than they do anything else.

* * * * *

Speaking of American media propaganda, the Editorial Aide to the Washington Post Ombudsman announced this week that the Ombudsman will soon address the American media's use of the words "militants" and "Terrorists" to describe the victims of U.S. drone attacks, a clearly propagandistic practice in light of recent revelations about how the Obama administration has re-defined "combtant" to mean any military-age male in a strike zone. The Post Ombudsman is responding to the requests of readers here, triggered by this column I wrote, in which I encouraged everyone to contact the Post Ombudsman about this media practice ("The Post received dozens of e-mails from readers encouraging the paper to dig a little deeper to find out the actual identities of those who die in these drone strikes . . . Many also accused The Post of engaging in propaganda for government and military officials").

This kind of activism is slow, incremental, and sometimes unsatisfying, but it can make a difference; kudos to the readers here who took the time to write to the Ombudsman. The Post Ombudsman (with some exceptions) tends to defend his newspaper, so we'll see what he says, but either way, it at least brings more attention to the issue.


UPDATE: For a real classic in this "officials say" genre of reporting, see here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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