When War Correspondents Take Sides

From the Spanish Civil War to today's Syria conflict, one-sided reporting has often encouraged intervention.

An opponent of U.S. intervention in World War I, the isolationist senator from California Hiram Johnson lamented once that, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Indeed, as British author Philip Knightley demonstrated in his The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as a Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, Johnson’s warning was right: war correspondents sometimes spread lies for governments and others with a stake in the outcome of the war.

Much of the critique of the U.S. media coverage of the Vietnam War—and more recently, of the war in Iraq—highlighted the danger of American journalists becoming either the targets of the news management by their own government or as the mouthpieces for the "other side." But portraying American journalists as victims of U.S. propaganda or as targets for manipulation by Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein misses an important point.

Many of the journalists who have been drawn to the hot zones of the globe have been driven by a notion that they have a role to play in a grand, historical epoch. Their mission, as they see it, is to draw the attention of the world to the evil being committed by the “bad guys” against helpless victims and to force their government and the international community to “do something.”

In a way, the foreign correspondent as a global crusader—not unlike the muckraking journalist who uncovers evil deeds by corrupt party bosses and corporate chiefs—was the product of the a tradition that evolved in the progressive era, with its emphasis on uncovering wrongdoings at home and abroad, on punishing the evildoer and rescuing the underdog. Hence, the crusading war correspondent provides the crusading statesman with the rationale to go abroad, fight the monsters and make the world safe for democracy.

Indeed, from Martha Gellhorn's coverage of Spanish civil war to Christiane Amanpour's reports from the former Yugoslavia's war zones to the more recent media’s growing preoccupation with the so-called Arab Spring, this politicized genre of American war reporting has been celebrated as a courageous mission to discover the truth. But in reality, it has been a form of romantic adventurism in search of a political narrative performed by self-proclaimed “idealists” parachuting for the first time into an exotic part of the world—yet who are suddenly transformed into the leading experts about it. Concern with facts is replaced by the need to provide a dramatic morality tale.

And since the American journalists started flocking to Tahrir Square in 2011, promoting the perceived struggle for freedom and democracy in the Arab World has become a leading cause for a new generation of crusading war correspondents whose initial reports helped create the impression that the Arab Spring—supposedly a replay of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989—was led by a bunch of Westernized and “cool,” Internet-savvy kids who deserved full American support.

But things got murkier since Tahrir in 2011, and it has become more important for correspondents covering the political turmoil spreading in the Arab World to maintain a coherent story line—but this isn’t easy when the “good guys” who ousted autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya one day embrace Islamist and anti-liberal causes the very next day. After all, even a work of fiction has to make some sense, and the notion that Qaddafi was dead but Al Qaeda is on the rise in Libya doesn’t fit into the kind of narrative our foreign correspondents have been selling us for more than a year.

It may not have been easy for the foreign correspondents of the past to identify the good guys and the bad guys in their stories (Soviet commissars murdering Trotskyite volunteers in Spain; radical Muslim guerrillas fighting the Serbs in Kosovo). But imagine the many cases of cognitive dissonance experienced by the American reporters covering the civil war in Syria these days.

It all seemed quite clear: Bashar al-Assad, the son of the anti-American Syrian military dictator and himself a ruthless autocrat, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah—enemies of Israel—found himself under attack by groups of Syrian protesters. That meant that the Arab Spring was coming to Syria, prodemocracy forces were on the rise and another Arab dictator was about to fall from power.

And indeed much of the coverage of the Syrian crisis seemed to reflect that kind of Arab Spring narrative. The protesters’ embrace of violence has been described as a form of self-defense against a brutal dictator, while the use of force by the regime has been depicted as “atrocities” committed against civilians, including women and children, and a clear violation of human rights that requires a strong response by Washington and the rest of the international community. Consider this week’s reporting from the Syria-Jordan border by NBC’s Ann Curry, for example. While Curry interviews refugees fleeing the Assad regime, opposition “atrocities” condemned by the UN and reported in the New York Times are given little time in her reports.