CNN 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

“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

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

* “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 each time.”

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

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 neighborhoods.

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 were spurious.

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 Post.

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 have

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 advance.

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.”