Kathy Gannon was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow for the 2022 fall semester at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. For 35 years she covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Associated Press as chief correspondent and later, news director. She has covered the 2006 war in south Lebanon, the Iraq war, the Central Asian States, and Azerbaijan. Gannon was the only Western journalist allowed in Kabul by the Taliban in the weeks preceding the 2001 U.S.-British offensive in Afghanistan.
It was December 2001.
The U.S.-led coalition had taken control of Afghanistan and installed a government of warlords. It was led by Hamid Karzai, the only man among the Afghan allies without a private militia.
Karzai’s swearing-in ceremony had taken place, and he was ensconced in the presidential palace when a news conference was called.
Hundreds of reporters, who had swarmed into the Afghan capital after the collapse of the Taliban, attended the presser to find a member of the ousted, extraordinarily secretive movement on the stage before them, ready to answer their questions.
He wore a bulky black turban, his beard was long, bushy, and black, speckled with gray. He was wearing the traditional shalwar kameez.
He didn’t speak English, but through an interpreter he was identified as the deputy interior minister of the ousted Taliban. His name was Mohammad Khaksar.
He had stayed behind in Kabul when the Taliban fled in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 2001, shortly before the U.S.-led coalition arrived in the Afghan capital. He would eventually explain that he remained because he had hoped for something better for his country.
But he wouldn’t be given an opportunity to explain his rationale for being there that day at the press conference, nor would he be asked to unravel the mysteries of the Taliban movement, a movement he knew intimately, having been among its founders.
Instead, the reporters saw his turban and beard, the iconic trappings of the Taliban, and seemed immediately to tag him an enemy. The questions they asked seemed intended to confirm what they believed they knew to be the sins of the Taliban. The source of their knowledge was not on-the-ground reporting – after all, only a few had even been to Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule. No, their information was provided by western governments and intelligence agencies, who would later admit they knew little, to nothing, about the Taliban and the ground realities in Afghanistan when the U.S.-led invasion was launched on Oct. 7, 2001.
For the 10 years prior to 2001, the West had mostly ignored Afghanistan, but for the occasional engagement over the presence in the country of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
But even those minimal engagements had been haphazard, and lacked serious interest or even solid knowledge of al Qaida or the Taliban, intelligence officials would later say.
The shocking reality of how little America knew was revealed nearly two decades after the 2001 invasion, as told by The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock in his book The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, published in 2020.
Whitlock writes: “The reality is that on 9/11 we didn’t know jack shit about al-Qaeda,” Robert Gates, who served as director of the CIA in the early 1990s and later replaced (Donald) Rumsfeld as defense secretary, said in a University of Virginia oral-history interview. “. . .the fact is that we’d just been attacked by a group we didn’t know anything about.” The Bush administration made another basic mistake by blurring the line between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The two groups shared an extremist religious ideology and a mutual support pact but pursued different goals and objectives.”
Gates could well have been writing about what many of the reporters at the Kabul presser that morning knew about Afghanistan and the Taliban. Few had firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan under the Taliban, and none knew the former Taliban official sitting in front of them. Yet there seemed a widely held assumption among them that he wasn’t believable. One reporter even suggested to Khaksar that he should be tried as a war criminal, even though there was no evidence, he – or for that matter, the Taliban rulers during their five years in power – had committed offenses that rose to the standard of a war crime.
It seemed all a little surreal for me at the time. I was at that presser. I had been in Afghanistan for more than a month, the only western journalist in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as the U.S. -led assault raged to the north of the capital and on the city itself. I was still there when the Taliban fled.
When I arrived at the press conference, I expected the scores of reporters – who had tried for weeks and failed to get to those areas of Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban – would seize the chance to hear first-hand from a Taliban official. I assumed they would be hungry for details of their rule, that they would pepper Khaksar with questions about the Taliban movement, with which he was intimately familiar.
There was so much that was unknown and here was an opportunity to do what we as reporters do: Ask questions, seek to understand. Who was Mullah Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader, around whom myths had been spun? How had the Taliban disarmed a country that was awash with weapons and imposed a near total ban on opium production during their previous five years in power? Why had they destroyed the giant 2nd and 5th century Buddha statues in central Bamyan? What were they thinking banning girls from school and women from work? Was the ban complete? Why did he, Khaksar, stay back, risking potential jail as well as his life? What was the Taliban’s connection to bin Laden? Who had even brought bin Laden to Afghanistan? What did the Taliban know about 9/11 before it happened? Where was bin Laden now? So many questions for the curious.
But no. The questions instead of being curious, were accusatory. There were even a few who questioned me, wondering how it was that the Taliban let me into Kabul weeks before they fled. The suggestion being it seemed, not that I had covered their frontlines (as well as the frontlines of the mujahedeen-cum-warlords who replaced them), or that I had spent years developing contacts, but rather that perhaps I was compromised, or just soft on them – after all, they were the enemy.
I was dismayed. I felt overwhelmed by the pounding drumbeat of “you’re either with us or against us” that had become deafening following the 9/11 attacks. Worse, I wondered at how some among my colleagues, who seemed particularly hostile to Khaksar, might react if they knew I knew him. Worse, what if I didn’t seem as outraged as many there were? I wanted to ask Khaksar’s reading of the fleeing Taliban, to know why he had stayed behind in Kabul, what he thought would be the thinking of the fleeing Taliban? Would they be ready to surrender? If they did, what would it look like? I wanted to ask if he could give a human face to the Taliban, to help us understand better who were the Taliban?
But instead, I wondered what would those at the presser think of my questions, of me? After all, this was the first time that hundreds of other journalists had been on my doorstep.
I knew I shouldn’t worry. I was confident in my decades of independent frontline reporting, but on that day in Kabul, the ground beneath my feet felt shaky.
When in 2021 I watched the Taliban’s return, it struck me how easy it had been for Washington, the U.N. and NATO to rewrite history, to repeat a lie often enough until it became the truth. I also realized the result was that twenty years later there was still so little understanding of the Taliban as a movement, or of the depth of responsibility the warlords’ and the west’s disconnection with truth bore for the war’s loss. It made me realize how deeply the Washington-based narratives dictated reporting, and what might have happened if on-the-ground narratives, and Afghan-specific narratives, had instead informed the reporting.
This all eventually led me to the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, to reflect on the last two decades of media coverage of Afghanistan, what it revealed about our reporting, how it influenced policy, and how it left lies told in the early years of the Afghan war unchallenged, allowed history to be rewritten, and behavior that defied international laws to go undetected until years later.
The coverage of Afghanistan reveals a conundrum confronting western reporting, particularly, but not exclusively, reporting of conflicts. It’s not a new dilemma, say those who monitor media practices, but one that is increasingly becoming institutionalized, putting at risk even the illusion of independent reporting, producing journalism that seeks more to preach than inform, that makes us participants, rather than observers.
Western reporting is confounded by two extraordinary contradictions: Firstly, while purporting to challenge those in power, we also presume an exceptionalism of the west, which informs our stories and our questioning; and secondly, we profess independence, yet we increasingly exchange our role as independent chroniclers of history and trusted purveyors of information, for the roles of activists, cheerleaders, judge, and jury.
This new role has confused the news-consuming public, eroded their trust, diminished our credibility, and contributed to a growing polarization. It deeply compromises our ability to question, stifling it with a fear of criticism, or of being accused of betraying the so-called “good guys” while possibly making the “bad guys” look less bad. Stifled questioning hinders our ability to provide information that offers both perspective and nuance, which in turn would allow the news-consuming public to better understand our complicated world. The intention is not to make the wrong, right, but simply seeks to provide a better, perhaps more nuanced understanding.
We have mistakenly defined “both-sideism” as providing some sort of justification for one side or the other, or a simplistic “he said, she said,” which in fact would make us more stenographers than reporters. Our job as reporters is to think of the news-consuming public, and what our responsibility is to those consumers, to ensure they have the best understanding of a situation, a conflict, of the combatants. Our job is not about taking sides. Our job is about informing, looking at all sides with the intention of providing an understanding, not a justification and looking beyond the simplistic to explain the complicated.
Writing for www.fair.org Bryce Green tackles this conundrum. In a June 12, 2023, article about coverage of Ukraine and the Nazi imagery favored by some Ukrainian soldiers, he writes: “The Times commented that such (Nazi) imagery put “Western journalists” in a “difficult position,” noting that a Ukrainian press officer said journalists had asked Ukrainian soldiers to remove Nazi insignia before being photographed. . . At issue was “the Ukrainian military’s complicated relationship with Nazi imagery, a relationship forged under both Soviet and German occupation during World War II.” The relationship is “delicate,” the Times says, because of Putin’s stated war aims of de-Nazification.”
But in fact, it is self-censorship for the unstated goal of limiting criticism of Ukraine while not being seen to give Putin’s arguments validity. This is an indictment of our ability as reporters to inform. In this case, it would indicate we are not able to give the historical perspective and understanding to the issue that would allow the reader to see the complexity of the relationship and the flawed underpinnings of Putin’s argument. It reflects either a shortcoming in our ability, or a belief that the reader is just not smart enough to understand.
As for our double standards, whether it is intentional or not, most western journalists come out of the starting gate with a belief in the fundamental rightness or exceptionalism of the west. This belief, especially when un-examined, affects our reporting. For example, as we saw in Afghanistan, when western governments commit the same offense as a non-western country, the offense seems not to define the west as it does “the other.”
As a result, when western governments are exposed for lies, they are still assumed to be fundamentally honest. When international laws are flouted by the West – as they were when America invaded Iraq, justified by lies it knowingly told and perpetuated by some of the most powerful in the media – it is still held up as the standard bearer of the rule of law.
When human rights are ignored, holding people for decades without charges, torturing them in secret sites around the world, as the U.S. did, the West is still held up as the champions of human rights, even presuming to lecture others on their behavior, without being held accountable to the same standard for its own behavior.
Yet, when non-western governments or groups perpetrate similar crimes, they are forever depicted in a black and white way, where none of their other actions are contextualized. Instead, they are blasted in the press and by western governments simplistically as criminals, thugs, etc.”
These double standards color our coverage and deny the news-consuming public a nuance and perspective needed to understand a world that is considerably more complicated than ‘them and us.” When Vladimir Putin was charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC), a court the U.S. does not recognize, the media could hardly contain its excitement. Yet there was little context reporting, not just to examine the ‘why’ of Putin’s charge, but the ‘why’ of the ICC’s unwillingness to charge U.S. President George Bush or British Prime Minister Tony Blair over the invasion of Iraq – an invasion also based on lies. No mention, for example, of when the late South African Bishop Desmond Tutu went to the ICC to bring charges of war crimes against former President Bush over the invasion of Iraq.
The U.S. also has a dubious relationship with the ICC, supporting it when it implicates its enemies and condemning it when it points a finger at Washington. The U.S. attacked the ICC when its prosecutor Fatou Bensouda wanted to investigate claims of war crimes by the U.S. and CIA in Afghanistan. In retaliation Washington even barred ICC officials, including Bensouda, from entering America.
America’s temper tantrum resulted, despite condemnation from rights groups, in Bensouda’s successor, ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, exempting the U.S. from investigation into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. He didn’t say the U.S. did not commit any, but that we are supposed to assume they just weren’t as bad.
Yet there was no mention of any of this history in the gleeful western coverage of Putin’s ICC charges.
The double standard that informs our reporting shatters the myth that western reporting is independent. This is true especially in conflict situations, but not exclusively.
These contradictions are also nothing new. Norman Solomon, founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of books exploring the media’s dearth of independent thinking, including his latest, War Made Invisible, says there has been no ‘golden era’ of independent reporting and the attacks of 9/11 simply amplified the phenomena.
Solomon wrote in an email conversation: “Post-9/11 intensified such dynamics but I’m not aware of any golden era. Coverage of the 1991 Gulf War was reportorial cheerleading for the U.S. military and that was nothing new then. The questions rarely asked have to do with double standards that are exculpatory for the U.S. military compared to the designated enemy.”
He went on to say: “There’s some high-quality report[ing] but I believe it is overwhelmed by virtual stenography for official sources – governmental, corporate, large think tanks, policy analysts who are within the prevailing boundaries reflected in discourse along Pennsylvania Avenue, etc.”
Even the Vietnam War – the first so-called “television war” whose images of bodies returning home and brutal combat footage helped bring it to an end – was applauded by the media in the early years.
In Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, he lampooned the media’s early 1968 criticism of the anti-war movement. In those early years the media didn’t question the underlying purpose of the war. That came later, just as it did in the Afghan war and later again, in the Iraq war.
As Solomon notes, it is not new that our reporting, particularly conflict reporting, is not independent, and it’s certainly not specific to Afghanistan. But our consistent failure to address independence in our journalism schools and in our classrooms, where we graduate the next generation of reporters, has condemned us to repeat the problem, and even institutionalize it.
Today’s journalism risks nudging aside independent reporting, confusing the job of the reporter – to inform independently – with that of advocates, propagandists, and cheerleaders.
This drift from independent reporting has dulled our curiosity, frightened the curious, impeded our questioning, led to self-censorship, and even frightened reporters into silence.
This presumption at the Kabul presser that the information provided by the U.S. government about the Taliban was accurate, certainly more so than information they could receive from Khaksar, the Taliban official sitting in front of them, informed the questioning that day.
There was no curiosity to hear his take on the previous five years, assuming that as a Taliban he couldn’t be trusted. Rather than the curious observers, the press corps seemed to have arrived in Kabul instead as conquerors, alongside the U.S.-led coalition – according to one media outlet, some journalists even led the conquest.
Famously, a veteran BBC reporter told listeners on the morning of Nov. 13, 2001, as he entered the Afghan capital from northern Afghanistan along with the coalition and behind the departing Taliban, that it was the British Broadcasting Corporation who “liberated Kabul.”
“It was only BBC people who liberated this city,” said the breathless broadcaster. “I can’t tell you what a joy it was. I felt very proud indeed to be part of an organization that could push ahead of the rest.”
Sheepishly he later spoke of regretting his foolhardy claims, but chalked it up to the headiness of the moment.
In a report carried in The Guardian on Nov. 19, 2001, he told David Frost: “I got a bit carried away really. I got excited. I can’t help it. It was a fantastic moment.”
Yet these are the very moments when we as journalists need to be the voice of calm, independent reporting – a source of information on which the news-consuming public can depend.
Our drift toward accepting the exceptionalism of the west and institutionalizing reporting that does not make independence its core has victims and consequences, other than the obvious erosion of our credibility and diminished trust in what we report.
In those first months and years of the war in Afghanistan our reporting was mostly seen through the lens of western governments and their militaries, not through the lens of Afghans, regardless of which side of the conflict they fell. The narrative that guided stories was a narrative set in Washington, and by the militaries of the U.S. and NATO. It was not a narrative from Afghans and Afghanistan.
The lens through which reporters viewed the Afghan conflict spared the U.S. and NATO militaries as well as its Afghan allies from the scrutiny that would have revealed much sooner the lies, but also the flagrant human rights abuses being committed, as well as widespread arrests, and torture.
Even if some reporters sought to see all sides through the same lens, some news organizations did not.
In March 2022, Andrew McCormick took a deep dive into coverage of the Afghan war for the Columbia Journalism Review.
McCormick wrote: “As Afghan civilians scrambled to the Kabul airport and Taliban fighters danced in the street, newscasts exploded with righteous outrage. Commentators framed the events as a sudden and profound indictment of US foreign policy—as though a two-decade war weren’t indictment enough. How could this happen? So many newspaper columns demanded. Often, the story was contorted to fit political narratives: anchors puzzled at the implications for US midterm elections fifteen months away, while the consequences for Afghans, by comparison, were an afterthought.”
Our vision was skewed by the narrative of the “evil” Taliban and the “good” U.S.-led coalition and U.S. Afghan allies.
As a result, it was years before reports began to emerge on the thousands of innocent Afghans who were being arrested by the U.S. and its allies, held for months in Afghan prisons without charges, families not even told their loved ones had been arrested. Few were ever charged, and none received an apology.
During those first months and years, revenge killings were carried out with impunity by America’s Afghan allies, often using the U.S. and NATO militaries to implement the killings. The rank-and-file Taliban, who had returned to their villages, were accosted by America’s Afghan allies, who demanded their money and weapons. Those who resisted their blackmail were threatened with being handed over to the Americans.
Again, Whitlock’s book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret War, published in 2020, revealed in detail how in 2002 the U.S. was being used by its Afghan allies to settle scores.
In his book Whitlock wrote: “Michael Metrinko, a legendary Foreign Service officer said . . . Afghans learned that if they wanted to eliminate a personal rival in a power struggle, land grab or commercial dispute, all they had to do was tell the Americans that their foe belonged to the Taliban.”
In those early years the U.S. and its Afghan allies arrested and tortured Afghans in secret prisons that would be discovered years later. Some died. Their bodies never found.
In just one case it was revealed in 2010 (eight years after the fact) that Gul Rahman, a suspected militant, (and who turned out not to be) was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and handed over to the U.S. and tortured in a secret prison known as the Salt Pit on the northern outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul. He was stripped, beaten, and left to freeze to death in Afghanistan’s subzero winter temperatures.
The Salt Pit was the code name for an abandoned brick factory not far from the Kabul airport that became a forerunner of the network of secret CIA-run secret prisons operating from Poland to Thailand.
The question to be asked is how much earlier might we have discovered the horrors so many suffered at the hands of the U.S., the coalition and its Afghan allies, had we held both sides in the conflict to the same standards, and approached the conflict with an independence that subjected all sides to equal scrutiny and questions.
The willingness of reporters to accept Washington’s whitewashing of its Afghan allies allowed history to be rewritten. The massacres and horrors they carried out when they last ruled between 1992-96 lay buried, given only a cursory examination as U.S. officials and its military reinvented them in 2001 as “freedom fighters,” even heroes.
Their crimes were ignored, yet so grievous were the crimes of some that their victims have also gone to the International Criminal Court. When they last ruled, their unbridled corruption had left the country divided into fiefdoms controlled by rival warlords. Their violence and corruption eventually gave rise to the Taliban, who were initially welcomed when they took control of Kabul in September 1996.
Had their history not been rewritten, had their past been more cynically scrutinized, had the early reports of revenge killings and errant bombings been examined more closely, had our reporting been less influenced by the U.S. and its allies’ narrative of the ‘evil’ Taliban and more influenced by an independent curiosity that held everyone’s feet to the same fire, the U.S. military’s miscalculations, misdeeds and outright lies may have come to light earlier in the conflict.
Whitlock’s book lays out in excruciating detail how the U.S. government waged a war of lies, euphemistically referred to as “misinformation.” Other euphemisms routinely used in coverage of western behavior includes “enhanced interrogation” for torture or “an accounting error” in a recent case of the Pentagon overstating by $6.2 billion the cost of military equipment for Ukraine because military officials priced old equipment as new. Accounting error?
What we could have learned
It’s a valuable exercise to return to that presser in Kabul in 2001 and consider what we may have learned had curiosity driven our questions, rather than a narrative from Washington and Brussels, or if we had been able to see the Taliban official sitting before us as a source of information, a challenge to know and better understand, rather than an enemy to abhor.
Here is what Khaksar, the former Taliban deputy interior minister, could perhaps have told the presser, had he been given the opportunity:
- In 2000, more than a year before the 9/11 attacks, he had reached out to the CIA, not to wage a war, but to ask that they assist those inside the Taliban movement who were worried about the increasing number of Islamic militants from the Middle East and Pakistan and their increasing influence in their country; who wanted to engage with the west; who wanted to find a peaceful way to reclaim their country from the few, who sought to impose their will on the majority.
The CIA refused.
The CIA agent whom Khaksar had contacted recalled the meeting. It was a bit of a cloak-and-dagger-type affair, he recalled.
He corroborated Khaksar’s account, including the 5 Afghani note Khaksar had ripped in half, giving half to the CIA agent telling him to talk only to him and only if he produced the other half of the note.
But the CIA did nothing. The reason, explained the CIA agent, was that they knew very little of the inner workings of the Taliban. They could neither gauge Khaksar’s credibility, nor plot a workable strategy to aid those among the Taliban who wanted something better for their country, and who wanted foreigners, like Osama bin Laden, out of their country.
This incident does much to inform the difficulties the CIA has gathering reliable intelligence, at least in Afghanistan and about the Taliban. This has implications today. The details of the CIA and its encounter with Khaksar is found in I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror, a book I wrote in 2015, published by Public Affairs.
- Months before the 9/11 attacks in America, Khaksar had reached out to Afghanistan’s opposition Northern Alliance, including its leader Ahmed Shah Masood, who was killed in an al Qaida bombing two days before 9/11. He wanted an end to war. He had sought peaceful co-existence.
- He may have offered a human face to some within the Taliban, saying that in March of 2001 he had tried to stop the destruction of the two giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan’s central Bamiyan province, pleading with the Taliban’s leadership council to save them. He told the leadership council that to destroy the statues, which he said was the country’s history, its legacy, “would be like cutting the throat of my son.” He failed, but he had tried.
- He may have explained that the Taliban movement was not a monolith. While its membership was tribal and deeply conservative, it was a national movement with no interest in exporting its system of government beyond its borders and held no grudges against the West. It was not al Qaida.
Had the media questioned the Afghan allies with a robust curiosity and independence, here is what they may have discovered in just those first weeks:
- Among the U.S.-led coalition’s Afghan partners was the man who orchestrated Osama bin Laden’s move to Afghanistan from Sudan in May 1996. He was not a member of the Taliban. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a deeply conservative Sunni Muslim extremist, sent a plane with his commander to Sudan to invite bin Laden to Afghanistan in May 1996, while the mujahedeen-cum-warlords still ruled in Kabul. Sayyaf also was the inspiration behind the Philippine militant group, named for him, Abu Sayyaf. Yet under the U.S.-led coalition, Sayyaf would be a powerbroker.
- Among the Afghans who allied with the west and hunted for bin Laden after 2001, most were loyal to Maulvi Younus Khalis, a mujahedeen leader, who held a lunch in 1996 to welcome bin Laden to Afghanistan, before the Taliban took power. This might also explain why they didn’t find bin Laden in that search.
- Gen. Rashid Dostum, a former Communist general who switched sides (and became a U.S. ally), brutalized hundreds of Taliban who surrendered in northern Afghanistan and was never held accountable.
- Sayyaf and other Afghan allies had destroyed vast parts of Kabul when they last ruled between 1992-1996, in a bitter civil war among themselves that killed 50,000 civilians and resulted in the country being carved up into corrupt warlord-run fiefdoms, eventually leading to the Taliban’s first rise to power and, not surprisingly, contributed to their second coming in 2021.
In war, the first casualty is independence
In the fifth century B.C., the Greek dramatist Aeschylus said, “in war, truth is the first casualty.” But I would argue the first casualty is independence. It makes us vulnerable and often party to government and military propaganda, imposing a self-censorship that colors the stories we tell.
There are exceptions, and there is exceptional reporting, but as Norman Solomon, the founder of the Institute for Public Accuracy, says – they are, by definition, exceptional.
Solomon said: “Journalism works when it’s truly independent and has a range of sources not tethered to the outlooks in proximity to supporting the status quo – particularly corporate power, income inequality, the military-industrial complex and so forth. Countering such drumbeats is a steep uphill climb.”
But the climb seems an important one, and one journalism schools have a powerful role to play in encouraging.
The eroding independence of journalism and its impact is exemplified in a recent discussion I had with a young reporter at the Shorenstein Center, about the coverage of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong. As she spoke of her concerns, she looked over her shoulder, as if worrying someone might be listening. Quickly she reassured me that “I support democracy,” before explaining how she struggled to get colleagues and her news organization to look deeper into some of the pro-democracy movements, to question what was behind them, their motives, suggesting there were other stories to tell, more nuanced information that was being missed. The only stories being told seemed more intent on attacking China than giving a nuanced understanding of the Hong Kong movements.
Exploring, explaining, questioning, and providing understanding doesn’t make an aggressor right, or justify an aggression, but rather it offers the news consumer an understanding so they can be better informed.
A pillar of democracy is independent journalism, but as we continue to drift towards embracing the role of so-called “champions of democracy,” we erode our independence and undermine the fundamentals of a democratic system. It has made reporters afraid to question, fearing their questions would be misinterpreted or might make the “bad guy” look less bad. It has given the so-called “good guy” the freedom to defy international laws.
It has blunted our questioning, presumed to tell the news consuming public what to think rather than offering them the information to understand and decide.
It has colored our opinions of “us” versus “them,” somehow making our wrongs less wrong. It has eroded trust, diminished the credibility of our reporting, relegated truth to the eye of the beholder and ultimately threatens to weaken democracy.
Events like 9/11 and the subsequent wars give us an opportunity to examine independent reporting and explore what it means as well as to see whether we have taken for granted the independent part of the “independent press” of which we are so proud.
Just as the survival of any good partnership hinges on neither side taking the other for granted. In the same way, sustaining quality reporting hinges on us not taking for granted those elements, like independence, that are fundamental to quality reporting.
I would argue that we have taken for granted the independence part of our “independent press,” presuming our independence and as a result have not examined it, nor questioned how we even define independent reporting.
Widening the reporters’ lens
Having witnessed frontline reporting for nearly four decades, I believe our examination must begin with an understanding of the different lens through which we see ourselves and those we perceive as ‘same’ and the lens through which we see “others.”
From there the path should take us to an examination of how the differing lenses inform our questions, or even our mental vocabulary to craft our questioning.
In my opinion, independent thinking requires an open mind that is not cluttered with worries that we might make the ‘bad’ guy look good or at least make him/her look less ‘bad’ than they really are.
It blinds us to nuance, to the reality that the “good guy” is not always good and the “bad guy” not always bad.
It is difficult to report independently on, say, the Taliban, asking questions that might seek to understand their thinking, without being attacked as a pro-Taliban, an “apologist” or at the very least being insufficiently outraged by their attacks on women’s rights and freedoms.
This spawns a fear of questioning, but worse, it closes our minds to questions that could enhance understanding. It confuses understanding with an acceptance of a practice, a government, an invasion etc., when in truth we are only accepting a narrative about it that aligns with the side we believe to be “right.”
When we limit ourselves, we miss the opportunity to achieve a better understanding which might offer insights that lead toward solutions. I would argue our lack of independent thinking, fearing it might challenge the “good guy,” for example, in fact impedes, even weakens policy decisions and policy makers, who look to the media for their arguments or for their understanding of an issue or environment.
In his 2018 book, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict, Thomas H. Johnson told of how the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of Afghans because they had little to no understanding of Afghans and Afghanistan beyond a circle of Kabul elite and Afghan diaspora.
The reporting, particularly in the earlier years of the Afghan conflict, did little to contribute to the U.S. understanding, with writing that fit the narrative crafted in Washington rather than reflecting the ground realities in Afghanistan.
It allows the “good” guys to commit nasty things, like torture, renditions, and summary executions without scrutiny, at least until the passage of time, or changes in the situation, make it more acceptable to examine closer. It allows for double standards.
Investigative journalism today uncovers systemic abuses in institutions like the police and military, abuses against minorities, women, and others. Abuses that should have been reported earlier but were allowed to continue unchallenged until it became more acceptable to take an independent look. Too often, it wasn’t until we employed people personally impacted by these long-ignored conditions and practices that abuses of power came to light.
Here is where journalism schools have the opportunity to break new ground: to inspire students to question, not just why these things were and are happening, but also, importantly, why the media wasn’t reporting on them at the time; to inspire students to examine with clarity the lens through which they see the world and themselves, but also to explore and seek to understand the lens through which the world looks out, and to understand the reality of their lens.
It is hoped that this approach will encourage empathy and inspire journalism students to seek a greater understanding of the world in which they live; and to better appreciate the immense value that deeper understanding has to us, and how invaluable understanding is to our news-consumers. We have a great responsibility to provide the information that contributes to that understanding. The opportunities to enhance our reporting and our credibility are great, as are the dangers in doing nothing.