Many U.S. media outlets were quick to give us a primer on Islamic terrorism in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week, even though actual evidence points the finger far more at our ally in the war on terror, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, than it does at the Taliban or al-Qaida.
Indeed, McClatchy Newspapers recently reported that Bhutto, at the time of her murder, was in possession of evidence that Pakistan's military intelligence agency was planning to rig the upcoming election (then scheduled for Jan. 8 ) in Musharraf's favor, supplying, as if it were needed, an obvious motive for getting rid of her.
While there was some good, or at least restrained, reporting by U.S. media as the tragedy unfolded, the main sources of news for most Americans maintain what I can only call a cocked trigger of jingoism, which often goes off before the screams subside and the blood and debris are hosed into the gutter.
"Weird, isn't it, how swiftly the narrative is laid down for us," Robert Fisk observed in the U.K's Independent. Yeah, I'd say so. I'd add: insulting, infuriating, dangerous - this media readiness to act as the propaganda arm of the party in power, to simplify evil as the sole domain of the enemy du jour, to "unite" the country in self-righteousness and hatred of that enemy.
Without such shamelessly bad reporting - perhaps a better term is "pseudo-reporting" - we couldn't have gone to war with Iraq in 2003 or, for that matter, Spain in 1898. Pseudo-reporting has, alas, a long tradition. It appeals to a docile, uninformed populace and demands the scrutiny of citizens capable of complex thought. Outing such reporting when it fizzles - when too much counter-evidence keeps it from gaining momentum and creating policy - is particularly useful. It's easier to sharpen our awareness of the forms of deception when the deception is not actively doing harm.
To that end, here's a quick survey, by no means complete, of some of the forms of pseudo-reporting that were on display the first day or two after Bhutto's assassination:
A. The quasi-factual assertion in the lead paragraph or headline, aimed at the casual news consumer who plunges only toenail deep into the story, e.g.: "Suspicion swirled around Islamic extremists Thursday as news spread that former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated." (CNN)
B. The affectation of objectivity, usually achieved by quoting alleged "experts" or anonymous officials, as though they were disinterested in how the news was spun. Such quotes also must be high up in the story so they can establish a context that ensures that blame still adheres to the designated enemy when, later in the story, in further affectation of objectivity, an enemy spokesman is quoted denying any responsibility. "Just 24 hours after the assassination . . . Pakistan's interior ministry announced what many people had suspected: al-Qaida-linked extremists were responsible for the killing." (Time Magazine)
C. The subtle dismissal of counter-belief. In the TV studio, this can be accomplished with a timely roll of the anchorperson's eyeballs. In print, verbal artifice is necessary to imply rashness or emotionality, in blatant contrast to the disinterested expertise cited at the top of the story. "Regardless of who is behind the attack, many Pakistanis will suspect that Musharraf or his security forces played a role in Bhutto's death . . ." (CNN)
D. Oversimplification and selective reportage, combined with excruciatingly unacknowledged psychological projection. Time, for instance, saw in the enemy's dearth of previous political assassinations not a reason to look elsewhere for a culprit but "a dramatic and disturbing diversification in al-Qaida's terrorism playbook . . . (on top of a past record of) creating chaos and panic through large terror strikes that claim large numbers of random victims."
The analysis certainly makes it clear that these are bad, bad people, and seemingly argues that this fact alone implicates them in the latest outrage. I remind the newsmagazine that no one's innocent in the war on terror, and quote from a 1996 Defense Department publication called "Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance," by Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade:
"The intent here is to impose a regime of Shock and Awe through delivery of instant, nearly incomprehensible levels of massive destruction directed at influencing society writ large, meaning its leadership and public, rather than targeting directly against military or strategic objectives. . . . The employment of this capability against society and its values, called 'counter-value' . . . is massively destructive strikes directly at the public will of the adversary to resist."
Remember? We did this to Iraq. But so what? We're good, we mean well, we'd never have allies who kill their opponents. It's all there in black and white.
Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.