Journalism 101: If a US Official Says It, Report It

In Pakistan, according to American officials, strikes from Predators and Reapers operated by the CIA have killed more than 2,000 militants; the number of civilian casualties is hotly debated. In Yemen last month, an American citizen was, for the first time, the intended target of a drone strike, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter, was killed along with a second American, Samir Khan.

Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race,” The New York Times, Oct. 8, 2011

Do civilians die in war? Not according to U.S. officials. Are their claims trustworthy or verifiable? It doesn’t matter. What does is that they’re making them. 

A number of things are noteworthy about the recent piece in The New York Times, excerpted above, on China getting into the unmanned killer drone game. First, there are some basic factual errors. Last month, for instance, was not “the first time” an American citizen was the target of a U.S. drone strike; back in May, Awlaki in fact survived an earlier such assassination attempt that left two of his companions dead. And since the list of Americans determined by the Obama administration to be eligible for due-process-free death by drone is classified, and since the drone strikes themselves are often not even acknowledged by U.S. officials, we really don’t know if — and the Times plainly can’t say with certainty — even that strike was the actually the first attempt on an American citizen’s life. 

Most interesting, though, is what the piece shows about the willingness of the Times to print, unchallenged, claims by U.S. officials — and how readily it’s willing to ignore or downplay widely reported facts when they’re disputed by those in power. For example, we are told as a matter of unattributed fact that Awlaki was a terrorist “plotter,” despite the lack of any solid evidence for that assertion having been made public by American officials. Indeed, Reuters reports that those very officials acknowledge “the intelligence purporting to show Awlaki’s hands-on role in plotting attacks was patchy.” Experts on the ground in Yemen also report Awlaki “did not have any real role” in the organization he was accused of being a part of. 

And yet, there it is: “Anwar al-Awlaki, the Qaeda propagandist and plotter.” 

Then there is the line about the number of “militants” killed by CIA drone strikes. Here, the Times is very specific: 2,000 have died, though the assertion this time comes with an “according to American officials.” Are these militants members of al-Qaeda? The Taliban? Just men between the ages of 12 and 60 who don’t passively accept a U.S. military occupation in their backyard? The paper doesn’t see fit to tell its readers. It probably didn’t bother to find out. 

A U.S. official said it, after all. 

The Times also doesn’t appear to have bothered to find out the number of innocent men, women, and children whose lives have been extinguished by flying death robots. That unmentionable number is merely “hotly disputed” — and the details of the dispute are not worth reporting. 

Never mind that Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution, hardly a radical antiwar group, suggests that “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.” Put aside the fact that the New America Foundation more conservatively estimates that one in five of those killed are civilians. And forget that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented credible reports that “[m]ore than 160 children” and somewhere between “385-775 civilians” have been killed in U.S. drone strikes. The mere fact that Obama administration officials like John Brennan assert, contrary to all available evidence, that few if any civilians have died is all that matters to a respectable stenographer. 

The lesson for those who wish to be successful in the corporate media is this: If a U.S. national security official asserts something, dutifully report it, preferably with no attribution. Objective facts, on the other hand, are not to be published if an anonymous government official takes issue with them, or if they’re just too darn anti-Americany. 

Remember, the purpose of the corporate press is to service the needs of the state and its corporate masters. While there may be instances of quality journalism in the likes of The Washington Post and The New York Times, their chief purpose is serving the corporate-state agenda, not the public interest. And the key to any fact being ignored or “hotly disputed” is the degree to which it challenges that mission.

Author: Charles Davis

Charles Davis is an independent journalist based in Washington, DC. More of his work may be found on his website.