The Bad PR of Dead Civilians

Afghan airstrikes and the corporate media

Early reports of a massive U.S.
attack on civilians in western Afghanistan last week (5/5/09) hewed to
a familiar corporate media formula, stressing official U.S. denials and
framing the scores of dead civilians as a PR setback for the White
House's war effort.

Scanning the headlines gave a sense of the media's view of the tragedy: "Civilian Deaths Imperil Support for Afghan War" (New York Times, 5/7/09), "Claim of Afghan Civilian Deaths Clouds U.S. Talks" (Wall Street Journal, 5/7/09), "Afghan Civilian Deaths Present U.S. With Strategic Problem" (Washington Post, 5/8/09).

As is frequently the case with such incidents (Extra! Update, 8/07), the primary fallout would seem to be the damage done to U.S. goals. The New York Times reported that civilian deaths "have been a decisive factor in souring many Afghans on the war." As CBS Evening News
anchor Katie Couric put it (5/6/09), "Reports of these civilian
casualties could not have come at a worse time, as the Obama
administration launches its new strategy to eradicate the Taliban and
convince the Afghan people to support those efforts." Other outlets
used very similar language to explain why the timing was "particularly
sensitive" (Washington Post, 5/7/09) or "awkward" (Associated Press, 5/7/09) for the Obama administration.

While it is important to be cautious about early reports of such
atrocities, many accounts played up U.S. denials. Some anonymous U.S.
military officials vigorously denied that they were responsible,
instead blaming the deaths on Taliban grenades and use of "human

The New York Times reported (5/7/09):

Defense Department officials said late
Wednesday that investigators were looking into witnesses' reports that
the Afghan civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban
militants, and that the militants then drove the bodies around the
village claiming the dead were victims of an American airstrike.

The initial examination of the site and of some of the bodies suggested
the use of armaments more like grenades than the much larger bombs used
by attack planes, said the military official, who requested anonymity
because the investigation was continuing.

It is troubling to see an anonymous source given so much space to make
such an elaborate case, seemingly based on little evidence. By the next
day's edition of the Times (5/8/09),
military sources appeared to be backtracking: "Initial American
military reports that some of the casualties might have been caused by
Taliban grenades, not American airstrikes, were 'thinly sourced,' a
Pentagon official in Washington said Thursday, indicating that he was
uncertain of their accuracy." That "thin" sourcing was good enough for
most of the press, though, and similar instances continued.

On CNN's American Morning (5/8/09), anchor Kiran Chetry announced, "CNN
is learning that the Taliban may have been using women, children and
men as human shields during U.S. air strikes earlier this week." That
would stretch the meaning of "learning" quite a bit, since CNN's
reporter from Afghanistan, Stan Grant, had little to report beyond
vague official assertions ("We're still waiting for a formal statement,
a formal report to come down from the U.S. military here in Kabul"). CNN
Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr had already (5/6/09) floated the
"much grimmer scenario" coming from U.S. officials--that the Taliban
had killed civilians and then paraded them around the area.

On May 8, the Washington Post
was stressing the notion that, whatever the truth, Afghans are going to
believe what they want: "The truth of what happened in Farah may be
less important than what the Afghan people believe took place in the
remote western region. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said that a
cornerstone of the Taliban campaign is to blame civilian deaths on U.S.

CBS's Couric (5/6/09) likewise
posited to U.S. Army General David McKiernan: "Whatever the outcome,
rumors alone that many civilians were killed by U.S. airstrikes--that
is very problematic, particularly at this moment in time." Couric
closed her report by paraphrasing McKiernan's assessment: "The general
added, because it takes time to uncover the truth, the U.S. is at a
distinct disadvantage in the propaganda war with the Taliban, who often
blame the United States for any civilian deaths."

It is difficult to see the corporate media's credulous, cursory
coverage of these killings as evidence of a U.S. public relations

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