The Media War

Foreign Affairs

On the eve of the one-month anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, ran a front-page headline that read, “Airstrikes Resume.” It was the kind of headline one might expect as we concluded a second day of bombing against Afghanistan. But instead of showing a picture of a U.S. fighter ascending from an aircraft carrier or the lit-up nighttime sky of Afghanistan, the accompanying photograph showed a rescue worker peering into the abyss of the site of the World Trade Center. The glaring contrast between the headline and picture created a chilling message: “Yes, we too are now perpetrators of violence, but remember why we must do it! Don’t forget how angry you felt last month!”

CNN’s implicit support for the bombing of Afghanistan is further proof that the media war has begun. Every armed war also includes a media war, and with the proliferation of telecommunications and Internet technology, this media war may be more important than ever. Ordinarily, America enjoys a marked advantage over its adversaries in this regard. During the Gulf War, the world was fed a constant stream of U.S.-friendly information through CNN’s rugged 24-hour coverage of the war. Its reporters broadcasted fearlessly from Israel during Scud missile attacks, on the frontlines in Saudi Arabia and even from Baghdad as bombs rained down from overhead.

Just as the world watched Baghdad and Basra in 1991, today every corner of the globe has its eyes fixed firmly on Kandahar and Kabul.

But this time, CNN is not on the frontlines. This time, America does not have a monopoly on information. Instead, the role of the world’s primary information gatherer has been thrust upon al-Jazeera-a Qatar-based, Arabic-language satellite news station-the only news station with a bureau in Kabul.

When al-Jazeera first appeared on the international news scene five years ago, Western journalists were quick to sing its praises. “Al-Jazeera is not only the biggest media phenomenon to hit the Arab world since the advent of television, it is the biggest political phenomenon,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last February, marking what was probably the first time Friedman said something positive about Arabs or the Arab world. Both CNN and ABC have signed deals with Al-Jazeera, giving them rights to re-broadcast al-Jazeera footage. CNN has even secured the rights to interview al-Jazeera correspondents reporting live from Afghanistan.


The deal does not mean that CNN and al-Jazeera will necessarily broadcast identical stories or images. And it should not suggest that al-Jazeera will only report U.S.-friendly information. Last week, Washington was infuriated when Al-Jazeera aired Osama bin Laden’s most recent speech. In this diatribe, bin Laden expresses satisfaction with the Sept. 11 attacks and predicts further outbreaks of violence. Secretary of State Colin Powell lamented that al-Jazeera was giving too much airtime to “vitriolic irresponsible kinds of statements.” But Al-Jazeera maintained that it was simply doing its journalistic duty. As Ibhrahim Hilal, al-Jazeera’s chief editor, stated, “We put every word, every move of President Bush on the air. Arabs accuse us of being pro-American, even pro-Israeli. The Americans say we’re pro-Taliban. We must be doing something right.”

Hilal’s reply to U.S. criticism was unambiguous: you’ll get your message out, but so will Osama bin Laden. And so will everyone else across the political spectrum.

It was not until many years after the Gulf War that people started feeling sorry for Iraqi civilians. As far as we knew, the “smart bombs” dropped by U.S. fighters hit only military targets. We were made to believe that only Saddam Hussein would suffer from our barrage of Cruise missiles. Little did we know that our bombs would destroy the entire infrastructure of a nation and that we would not allow that nation to rebuild itself even 11 years after the war.

But Afghanistan will be a different story. And CNN and the other U.S. news stations will have to choose whether they will tell it. CNN can either join the information revolution and broadcast both sides of the war against terrorism or it can join the ranks of Russia’s Pravda and China’s The People’s Daily as biased mouthpieces of a ruling government. If they choose to tell the whole story as it unfolds, then Americans will see the gruesome reality of war-unprecedented since Viet Nam. And if this happens, President Bush’s plans for a protracted war on terrorism will be in jeopardy. Even those who raised the war banner last month will become squeamish when they see picture upon picture of starving Afghani children and blood-soaked bodies strewn in the streets of Kabul.

Alternatively, CNN can join Bush’s war effort and misrepresent the severity of Afghani casualties. It can serve as the mouthpiece of the Bush administration and occasionally sprinkle stories of “smart bombs gone astray” in between stories of U.S. victories. If this becomes the case, then Americans will not have to work hard to find news sources that have the courage to tell both sides of the story. The information revolution works both ways. For years, we predicted that the Internet and satellite technology would empower individuals living under communist and authoritarian regimes. Now, that same technology will show Americans what happens when our “smart bombs” land in civilian neighborhoods. CNN is caught in a Catch-22: it can either tell the whole truth and risk falling from Washington’s good graces, or paint a one-sided Gulf War-type story and risk losing both credibility and viewers.

Either way, al-Jazeera will be there with its cameras and reporters, documenting the bombardment of the world’s most war-ravaged nation.

Nader R. Hasan ’02 is a government concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.