Outside editorial: Telling the story

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

In the past week the images out of Afghanistan may have done as much to advance the war against Islamic extremism as any missiles or bombs: Joyous Afghans have been seen shaving their beards, dancing to music, reopening schools for girls and otherwise making perfectly clear their delight with the end of the Taliban's harsh rule. As such scenes have been broadcast around the world, the claims by the propagandists of militant Islam that the U.S.-led military campaign has been doing great harm to the Afghan people have been badly damaged; so too the boast by Osama bin Laden that he leads Muslims in a war against the West. This windfall in the war of ideas has been sorely needed: Despite the horror of Sept. 11, the Taliban and al-Qaida seemed in recent weeks to be gaining sympathy in Arab and other Muslim states. But it's worth noting that the communications coup has had little to do with the U.S. government's "public diplomacy" apparatus or its increasingly aggressive efforts to market and control information.

Therein lies a lesson. Rightly recognizing that defeating terrorism means attacking the ideology and disinformation behind it, the Bush administration has launched a series of aggressive initiatives to get its story out, from setting up a 24-hour information war room to soliciting help from Hollywood. Some of the activity is worthwhile, and there is evidence that leaflets dropped in Afghanistan and the radio broadcasts of roving aircraft did some good. But too much of the administration's information strategy appears aimed at controlling what comes out, rather than encouraging the kind of open flow of information that has helped so much in the past week.

The administration now seeks to develop and peddle a "message of the day." That may be a good idea, but it's undermined by a parallel effort to push other messages off the air. U.S. networks are pressured not to air the statements of Osama bin Laden; the Taliban's outspoken ambassador in Pakistan is muffled. Administration officials openly seek to censor the Voice of America, stripping the radio of the credibility that is its strongest asset. Meanwhile, the Pentagon goes to great lengths to control the flow of news to U.S. journalists, keeping reporters far away from American troops in the field and strictly curtailing even after-action accounts. That the reaction of Afghans to their liberation was reported at all was due to the independent efforts of Western media to get to the scene a journey made possible only because Afghan opposition forces have proved more welcoming to journalists than the U.S. military.

Military authorities have a legitimate need to protect sensitive information in wartime. But the downside of the Bush administration's policy is already becoming clear: Around the world, media and governments are taking note of the efforts at control, and rightly or wrongly drawing the conclusion that the U.S. government is no longer as trustworthy, nor its press as free.

At the White House last week, a Russian reporter asked President Bush why he still bothered to express concern about media freedom in Russia now that he was trying to curtail the flow of information himself. As often happens when governments seek to control the news, the effort at control is getting more attention than the official daily message which, because it is official, is anyway less likely to be believed. Last week's wondrous footage from Afghanistan suggests that the administration could gain more ground by embracing a simpler strategy: continue to fight its justified war, drop as many restrictions as it can, offer as much information as possible, and let the world's free press tell its story.



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