MediaWatch: March 1989

Vol. Three No. 3

Janet Cooke Award: CBS & CNN: Easing the Soviets Out

On February 15, the Soviet Union finally ended their nine-year occupation of Afghanistan. But in the course of almost a decade the Afghan people learned a bitter lesson -- the price of freedom can be very high. It was a victory for the mujahideen freedom fighters and Western military support, but since the 1979 invasion 1.25 million people, mostly innocent civilians, have died. The Soviet presence caused more than five million Afghans to flee their homeland: two million others live within the boundaries as internal refugees, with virtually no means of support or subsistence. In short, more than half of the pre-war population has been either killed or displaced by the decade's events.

The recent State Department Report on Human Rights documents frequent cases of political killing, disappearances, torture, cruel and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention over the nine year occupation.

As for the future, it will take years to rebuild. War has savaged the country's infrastructure. More than half of the country's 20,000 villages and communities have been destroyed, many falling victim to the retreating Soviet army's scorched earth policy. Afghanistan's roads, irrigation system, and medical facilities have been gutted. Those that fled the war are reluctant to return: ten to 30 million mines laid by the Soviets and the Afghan regime are sure to maim tens of thousands more even after the war has officially ended.

But the bitter lesson that Afghans learned was not the lesson two TV networks relayed. Coverage of the atrocities and brutal nature of the occupation escaped most CBS Evening News and CNN PrimeNews stories in the weeks leading up to the pullout. Instead, CBS and CNN spent much of their airtime looking upon the Soviet occupation uncritically while impugning the freedom fighters. For this they earn the March Janet Cooke Award.

While the Soviets had engaged in weeks of saturation bombing and offenses against civilian villages before their pullout, just four of 14 CBS stories made any reference to these offenses. But plenty of time was given to supposed "rebel" indiscretions. On January 31 reporter Barry Petersen ignored Marxist atrocities, offering instead scenes of the mujahideen executing government recruits. His conclusion: "Afghan soldiers will face a situation as brutal as any the Soviets are leaving behind....Many fear this is just a taste of what is to come once the Soviets are gone."

How did Petersen view the mujahideen's efforts and American support? On February 14, Petersen didn't see the struggle as a fight for freedom but as one more battle in the "Great Game" that conquering nations have played in Afghanistan: "The Americans have given millions of dollars in sophisticated weapons to the mujahideen, an easy way for America to make the Soviets bleed that may now backfire. For any government to succeed here it must be...fiercely independent, unwilling to follow the lead of any other country. That may be all that American' millions will ultimately buy."

The same pattern held for CNN. Of 38 stories or anchor reads, only seven made any reference to Soviet atrocities. Moscow Bureau Chief Steve Hurst produced ten reports on the Soviet withdrawal that aired on PrimeNews. Hurst made three passing references to Soviet bombing and abuses. His February 3 report did document mujahideen claims that the Soviets have dropped exploding toys meant specifically to maim young children.

But most of his reporting time was devoted to how "the rebels keep up their harassing attacks," including how "rebel" ambushes and blockades of supply convoys bound for Kabul are causing hardship for the Afghan people, and "rebel" rocket attacks that are hurting civilians in Kabul.

In two pieces he even lent legitimacy to the Soviet invasion. On January 27 he reported that the invasion was "instigated partly out of fear of this kind of fundamentalism on the Soviet borders with its own Moslem republics."

On February 9 Hurst worried that the fall of the Marxist regime would be detrimental to women's rights. Ignoring the repression of the past eight years, he concluded: "The army has controlled this beautifully rugged landscape with the help of women right from the revolution. It's the women of this country who have the most to lose if this Marxist revolution fails -- if the government falls to the fundamentalist Moslem rebels. A woman's place in such a society would be back under the head to toe covering of the shaderi, cooking and bearing children."

Reached in Moscow by MediaWatch, Hurst stood by his story, defending it as a legitimate point of view to express: "All I said was...that these women who support the Marxists and are opposed to the fundamentalist society are the people who have a great deal to lose."

Part of CNN's imbalance stems from where they broadcast. All of Hurst's reports originated from communist-controlled territory. Jonathan Mann reported twice from Pakistan on a conference to form an interim government and once on the refugee problem, but did not accompany the rebels in the field. CBS did much the same. Hurst told MediaWatch that he spent over three weeks trying to get into the mujahideen countryside and admitted "if I had been in the rebel-controlled areas obviously my pictures and my reports would have been entirely different."

"I believe the stories about atrocities committed by the Soviets," declared Hurst, "But I was not where the Soviet atrocities happened...How can you expect me to report something I don't see?" Were Hurst's stories balanced? He argued:"I do not think I was biased. I do feel access I had prevented me from seeing what was going on on the other side. However, I made reference whenever I could to what I knew was going on on the other side."

But ABC and NBC did manage to gain access to mujahideen areas and as a result their coverage was thorough and significantly more balanced. NBC's Rick Davis filed seven reports from non-Soviet areas and presented a humane, just view of the mujahideen. That was not the characterization of the "rebels" from the Kabul regime, and it showed on CBS and CNN. Even worse, both networks failed to inform viewers their reporters were restricted to communist-controlled locations, which inevitably skewed their perspective.