Until the recent tragic massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech, the media's previous obsession was covering what was undoubtedly the most important story since the paternity test results were revealed for Anna Nicole Smith's baby: Don Imus, the favored "shock jock" of the Washington political establishment, is something of a bigot. Of course, this isn't news to anyone who has paid passing attention to the man over the past few years, but it did provide national news outlets with a much-needed excuse to avoid reporting on all of those depressing stories from Iraq, which are just too much of a distraction from the truly important work that remains to be done in this country — like electing the next American Idol.
By giving Don Imus more coverage than any single human being deserves, news outlets were able to shelve stories that had started to grow a little stale – like that one about the United States government supporting terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Oh wait, you didn't hear that one? Well imagine this: a group described in news reports as “part drug smuggler, part Taliban, part Sunni activist,” operates in a remote region of Pakistan and receives covert backing from a major regional power player in order to conduct cross-border terrorist attacks involving the kidnapping and videotaped execution of a neighboring country’s military and intelligence officials. Now if the country involved were say, Syria or Iran, such a story might make the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post. But as it is the United States government that his been implicated, the nation's leading news outlets are silent.
According to an April 3rd piece published by ABC News, the United States is backing a Pakistani tribal group called "Jundullah," or, "the Army of God," in what ABC calls a "secret war against Iran." The group operates in a region called "Baluchistan," a lawless area of Pakistan not controlled by the central government. They have claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks near the southeastern part of Iran that borders Pakistan, including a February bombing in the town of Zahedan that killed eleven people. Iran has accused the CIA of supporting the group, but the United States government has denied any involvement. But according to the ABC News report, the support is arranged in such a way "that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or ‘finding’ as well as congressional oversight." Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), when asked about the report, said he believed the Bush administration "would go to any lengths" to conceal the activity from Congress. Pressed on what he could do as Intelligence Chairman to investigate the matter, he responded:
"Don't you understand the way Intelligence works? Do you think that because I'm chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say u2018I want it, give it to me?' They control all of it — all of it — all the time. I only get, and my committee only gets, what they want to give me."
The arrangement is eerily similar to the backing that the Afghan mujahadeen received in the 1980s from both the Carter and Reagan administrations. At that time the United States was engaged in a proxy war not against Iran, but the Soviet Union. In a 1983 proclamation, President Ronald Reagan went so far as to declare March 21st "Afghanistan Day," praising the Islamic groups, which included Osama bin Laden and others who would later form Al Qaeda, as "valiant and courageous Afghan freedom fighters" for their resistance to the Soviet occupation.
But the news that the United States may be backing militant extremists should come as no surprise. Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed in the New Yorker back in January 2005 that President Bush signed several executive orders permitting Special Forces and commando units to target "suspected terrorist sites" in at least ten different countries. The units operate under the Pentagon's command structure so as to bypass restrictions and oversight requirements that are placed on the CIA. According to Hersh, Pentagon advisers said the covert activities could involve the recruitment of local citizens in the Middle East "to join up with guerillas or terrorists," and involve "organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities." As a former military official familiar with the plan put it, "We're going to be riding with the bad boys."
So why has the media afforded such extensive coverage to "Imus-gate," yet found no time to cover allegations of American-sponsored terrorism? Outside of ABC News, it's a struggle to find any discussion of U.S. support for anti-Iranian extremist groups in the major media outlets. While the New York Times was quick to speak about the Imus affair in an April 11th editorial, there has been not so much as a mention of the Jundullah story in their paper, much less a critical look at how the story undermines the White House's moral authority to criticize Iran for its supposed "meddling" in Iraq. The same goes for the Washington Post, where a search for "Jundullah" reveals only two wire articles on the subject. One finds no editorials questioning the policy, no reaction from lawmakers, no introspective takes on the morality of such a policy — one finds next to nothing. In contrast, the paper has run over 200 articles on the Don Imus story, examining it from every possible angle until the point where the mere mention of the name "Don Imus" is enough to cause one's mental faculties to shut down in protest.
This isn't the first time that the major news outlets, namely the Washington Post, have downplayed reports that may be detrimental to the Bush administration's claims against Iran. In fact, on April 7th, the Post simply rewrote history. As a number of blogs have noted, the Post extensively rewrote a Reuters article that directly contradicts administration claims that deadly devices known as "explosively formed penetrators," or EFP's, could only be supplied by Iran. The Reuters piece describes a recent battle in the southeastern Iraqi town of Diwaniya, and quotes a U.S. military spokesman describing how troops there "discovered a factory that produced u2018explosively formed penetrators' (EFPs)." A Google News screenshot shows that the Post initially included this information: [H/T Eschaton]
But it only took a few moments before the offending paragraph was removed. In its updated version, the Post neglects any mention of the EFP factory, choosing instead to include details about a roadside bombing near Baghdad that involved an "explosively formed projectile, a particularly deadly type of device which Washington accuses Iran of supplying Iraqi militants."
More than just a mere oversight, the Post's rewriting of history is just further evidence that the news media has failed to learn from the mistakes that played a major role in leading the country into war with Iraq. Then, as now, the news media failed to ask the hard questions of misleading and deceptive statements made by the Bush administration. Reporters, like the New York Times’ Judith Miller, uncritically reported administration claims in breathless stories that graced the front page, often with no mention of dissenting views or conflicting evidence. If the media had been more critical of claims of an "imminent threat" and weapons of mass destruction, then perhaps the country would not have been so easily led into war. But since 9/11, the American media has often been too afraid to be seen as unpatriotic to ask the hard questions. This has left some news outlets to conduct themselves more as an appendage of the American government and less as an independent body worthy of a democracy (a topic explored in depth in a new PBS documentary by veteran journalist Bill Moyers). As bombs fell on Baghdad at the beginning of the U.S. invasion, cable news anchors regaled viewers with images of "shock and awe," too busy adjusting their American flag lapel pins to do much else but read Pentagon press releases. Today, many Washington reporters still seem more comfortable socializing with congressional staffers and watching Karl Rove rap than they are asking the vital, informed questions that could prevent another conflict.
Journalists can, and should, do a better job questioning the assertions made by the political elite, and not fall prey to the all too common inside-the-Beltway mentality and its often-misguided "conventional wisdom" (see: Iraq). The fundamental goal of journalism — exposing deception and speaking truth to power — can occur only when journalists aren't afraid to offend those in power or to take a risk in asking questions that may prevent them from attending Washington's swankiest cocktail parties. While the United States government continues to struggle with the disastrous occupation of Iraq, it should be the duty of every news outlet that propagandized for the invasion of that country to ensure the public is fully informed of any and all attempts to embroil this nation in another conflict in the Middle East — but don't hold your breath.