tells reporters: No propaganda, except American
By Patrick Martin
6 November 2001
In an extraordinary directive to its staff, Cable News Network has
instructed reporters and anchormen to tailor their coverage of the
US war against Afghanistan to downplay the toll of death and destruction
caused by American bombing, for fear that such coverage will undermine
popular support for the US military effort.
A memo from CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson to international correspondents
for the network declares: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled
Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not
seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We
must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how
the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing
close to 5,000 innocent people."
"I want to make sure we're not used as a propaganda platform,"
Isaacson declared in an interview with the Washington Post, adding
that it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties
or hardship in Afghanistan."
"We're entering a period in which there's a lot more reporting
and video from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan," he said. "You
want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian
suffering there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that
caused enormous suffering in the United States."
In a second memo leaked to the Post, CNN's head of standards and
practices, Rick Davis, expressed concern about reports on the bombing
of Afghanistan filed by on-the-spot reporters. Davis noted that
it "may be hard for the correspondent in these dangerous areas
to make the points clearly" about the reasons for the US bombing.
In other words, the CNN official feared that overseas correspondents
might be intimidated by local opposition to the US military intervention
and allow such sentiments to influence their reports.
To ensure that every CNN report always includes a justification
of the war, Davis prescribed specific language for anchors to read
after each account of civilian casualties and other bomb damage.
He suggested three alternative formulations:
* "We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this from
Taliban-controlled areas, that these US military actions are in
response to a terrorist attack that killed close to 5,000 innocent
people in the US."
* "We must keep in mind, after seeing reports like this, that
the Taliban regime in Afghanistan continues to harbor terrorists
who have praised the September 11 attacks that killed close to 5,000
innocent people in the US."
* "The Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to
minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban
regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September
11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the US."
Davis concluded with an ultimatum to journalists concerned that
they may sound like parrots for the White House: "Even though
it may start sounding rote, it is important that we make this point
The Tailwind capitulation
A turning point in the transformation of CNN into a thinly disguised
outlet for Pentagon propaganda was the 1998 controversy over the
network's broadcast of an investigative report entitled "Valley
of Death." The program dealt with allegations that the US military
used chemical weapons in Laos in 1970 during the Vietnam War. Produced
by April Oliver and Jack Smith, and narrated by Peter Arnett, it
provided considerable evidence that Operation Tailwind, as the military
called it, involved the use of sarin, a deadly nerve gas.
But coming amidst a series of US provocations against Iraq over
allegations that Saddam Hussein's regime was developing weapons
of mass destruction, the CNN program threatened to cut across a
major objective of American foreign policy. A storm of protest was
whipped up by far-right elements, including former military officers,
and both former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell denounced the television report.
CNN's response was complete capitulation. Network founder Ted Turner,
still the largest stockholder in the parent Time-Warner conglomerate,
made abject apologies to the Pentagon. CNN repudiated the exposé,
fired its two producers, and reprimanded Arnett who, to his shame,
distanced himself from the program and claimed he was not responsible
for its allegations.
Less than a year later Arnett himself was fired. The Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist had been widely acclaimed for his on-the-spot reporting
from Baghdad during the Gulf War. His dismissal, in the midst of
the war on Yugoslavia, was followed by another demonstration of
the ties between the network and the national security apparatus.
CNN's chief correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, Christiane Amanpour,
married State Department spokesman James Rubin, the Clinton administration's
principal liaison with the Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas. Both
continued in their jobs as full-time apologists for the war on Yugoslavia,
one at the State Department podium, the other in front of a CNN
camera in the Balkans.
"Human shields" and other lies
While CNN's policy may be the most crudely expressed-or the only
one recorded in a corporate memorandum that has become public knowledge-its
stance is characteristic of the entire American media, which serves
in the Afghanistan war as 24x7 propagandists for American imperialism.
Isaacson's reference to "civilian shields" is typical
of the cynical lies spread by the American government, with the
obedient support of the media. This claim was first broached during
the Persian Gulf War, when US officials routinely dismissed reports
of horrific civilian casualties caused by the US bombing of Iraq,
claiming that Saddam Hussein had ordered tanks, warplanes and entire
chemical and biological weapons facilities to be moved into residential
The most notorious US atrocity of that war was the destruction of
a bomb shelter in the Al-Amariya neighborhood of Baghdad, in which
hundreds of civilians were killed, the majority of them women and
children. The Pentagon claimed that Al-Amariya was a top secret
command-and-control center for the Iraqi military, and that the
women and children had been deliberately planted there as "human
shields." Subsequent investigation revealed that these claims
This did not stop the media from uncritically accepting similar
statements about the US bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, when civilian
casualties were invariably blamed on the government of Slobodan
Milosevic. The same kind of lies are now circulated about Afghanistan,
with reports that the Taliban regime is moving heavy weapons and
military detachments into mosques and relief centers-in order to
justify in advance the next American atrocity.
The myth of "human shields" is only one example of the
torrent of lies that flows out of the White House, Pentagon and
CIA, swallowed and regurgitated by the US media without a qualm.
White House political adviser Karl Rove and press spokesman Ari
Fleischer were caught lying about why Bush took so long to return
to the White House September 11 after the suicide hijackings hit
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These officials peddled
the story that the White House had received a credible threat to
Air Force One. It later emerged that there was no such threat, and
the story had been concocted to provide a plausible explanation
for Bush's embarrassing conduct. Now the same administration issues
alerts about terrorist threats for the entire United States without
a single major media voice asking why, given the previous lies,
these alerts should be believed.
The administration initially pledged to release conclusive evidence
of Osama bin Laden's role in the terrorist attacks-Colin Powell
made the promise on national television-but reversed itself abruptly.
The supposed evidence has never been produced. The American media
raised no hue and cry, and continues to repeat the official claims
that the guilt of bin Laden is incontrovertible.
White House, Pentagon shape coverage
With the onset of the bombing campaign, the effort by the White
House and Pentagon to dictate terms of press coverage of the war
was stepped up. Bush' s national security adviser Condoleeza Rice
called the five television networks asking them to limit coverage
of statements by Osama bin Laden. Other officials suggested these
statements might contain coded instructions to terrorists. The networks
immediately issued a pledge of cooperation.
White House officials have responded to press criticism of the Bush
administration's handling of the anthrax attacks by seeking to rebuke
reporters whose questions express skepticism about the government
response. Campbell Brown, an NBC White House correspondent, said
a top White House official telephoned her to complain of a hostile
question to newly appointed Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge.
"To get an unsolicited phone call from a senior official at
this White House is very unusual," she told the Washington
The top executive at ABC News, David Westin, was raked over the
coals for remarks at a forum at the Columbia University journalism
school where he was asked whether the Pentagon was a "legitimate
military target." Westin replied by distinguishing between
his personal revulsion at the loss of life on September 11 and his
responsibility as a journalist to describe the event accurately,
including the motivation of those responsible for the attack, who
may have regarded the Pentagon in that light.
The forum was broadcast by C-SPAN, and Westin's comments were lambasted
by Internet gossip Matt Drudge, the New York Post, and other voices
of the right wing. Westin issued a public statement October 31,
declaring, "I apologize for any harm that my misstatement may
In the war zone itself, the Pentagon systematically violates its
own ground rules for press coverage, which prescribe that the media
should have access to all major units and locations. Only a handful
of reporters are on the ground in Afghanistan, and these operate
under the type of self-censorship revealed in the CNN memo. Reporters
are barred from many US naval warships in the Indian Ocean as well
as air bases in the Middle East and Central Asia.
While the usual justification for such practices is the safety of
the troops, the Pentagon has never documented a single incident
where press coverage compromised "operational security."
Seventeen news organizations were aware that the US was about to
launch bombing raids on Afghanistan at least 24 hours before the
attacks began October 7, but not a single one broke the story in
Richard Reeves, a veteran liberal journalist, described the informal
wartime muzzling of the press in a recent column titled, "Truth
in the Packaging of War News." He cited a 1982 Naval War College
advisory on press treatment, which prescribed the following rules:
"Sanitize the visual images of war, control media access to
theaters, censor information that could upset readers and viewers,
exclude journalists who would not write favorable stories."
This was predictable for the military, Reeves wrote, but his main
criticism was of the submissive response of the media. "My
gripe is with my own business," he explained. "The press,
in general, prefers appearing authoritative in war coverage to admitting
that we are being manipulated and lied to-and that we do not actually
know what is going on, particularly in the early combat of any war."