Sunday, August 7, 2011

Journalism, Orientalism, and the Raid that Killed Bin Laden

On the day after a US Chinook copter with members of the same SEAL team that killed Osama Bin Laden was downed by Taliban ground-fire, it's perhaps appropriate to highlight some issues surrounding Nicholas Schmidle's much celebrated New Yorker report on the SEAL raid in Abbottabad.  A number of expert commentators have scrutinized the reportage -among them, Georgetown U's Christine Fair (at Registan), who raises some important questions that go to the heart of understanding how the American public "learns" about major incidents such as this:

The article was in fact so detailed that it left the unmistakable impression that Mr. Schmidle had interviewed at least a few of the SEALs involved in the raid. During an NPR interview, Steve Inskeep explains that indeed Schmidle had spent time with the SEALs who were on the mission to get Bin Laden. NPR subsequently issued a correction . . . .

All of this makes for a gripping read. Too gripping I thought to myself.  As it turned out, there is one very serious problem with Mr. Schmidle’s account: Schmidle never met any of the SEALs involved, as reported (with great tact and restraint) by Paul Farhi on August 3.

Farhi reached the same conclusion as I had: “a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that [he had not interviewed the SEALS]; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.”

Surely a journalist or an editor with a commitment to informing—rather than amusing—a public would understand that disclosing this simple fact is critical to allowing readers to determine how much credibility they should put into this account.  In the absence of such disclosure, we are left asking whether this was second or third-hand information? Who are the people that he spoke to and how credible is their information?

Such an egregious exercise of incaution raises a number of questions about the entire report.

Indeed.  Moreover, Fair raises the sticky issue of the reporter's parentage: he's the son of a Marine Corps Lt. General who happens also to be the deputy commander of the US CyberCommand. Very interesting, especially in light of his claim (when queried about his sources) that "the 23 SEALs on the mission that evening were not the only ones who were listening to their radio communications.”  Is he implying that daddy somehow tipped him off to the details? 

Myra MacDonald (posting at a Reuters site) makes the very telling point that Schmidle's account is essentially devoid of any Pakistani presence, and she draws some spot-on conclusions:

I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

By the way, to return to the subject of Black Hawk Down, my Pakistan army minder when I went to Siachen had been in Somalia at the time the Americans left. His version of what happened was  quite different from the one I had seen in the film and read in the book.  He remembered thousands of Somalis clamouring at the airport for food and being shot at.  But he was telling me that story in 2004, soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal when not one person I met in the Pakistan army had a good word to say about the Americans. All those stories – Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, 9/11, the bin Laden raid -  had many sides to them and many versions.

Whether, and however much, we might disagree with them, we should however, know what they are. For me as a reader (and less as a journalist since there is always a value in telling a story from different perspectives and rarely room to fit them all into one piece), I personally am troubled most by one aspect of the New Yorker reconstruction. There appear to be no people in Pakistan.

MacDonald also steers readers to some insights from Jakob Steiner (at RugPundits) about Orientalism in Schmidle's piece:

Schmidle also ‘recounts’ how the SEALs catch bin Laden’s wives in bear hugs fearing they were wearing suicide vests. I understand that precaution is never a stupid thing, but the fact that the narrative on al-Qaeda has managed to expect us that women of their high-ups put on a suicide west each night after they take down their make up and brush their teeth with an electric toothbrush (yeah, I guess they even have that – shocking, eh?) is showing how far we have managed to construct the evil ‘other’ to our liking.

Steiner characterizes Fair's critique of Schmidle's report as a "rant." I can't agree - and in fact, Fair raises some other extremely significant issues about Schmidle's dubiously sourced account of the raid - specifically, his report that the SEAL who actually shot OBL said, as he pulled the trigger, "For God and country":
whether or not the shooter actually said “For God and For Country” is another important question that affects the way in which the United States and is citizenry are seen across the world. The conflict with Bin Laden has been waged in lamentably civilizational terms focusing upon the clash of Islam and the presumably non-Islamic west.  Since 9/11, countries with Muslim minorities have been gripped by Islamophobia with some states outlying headscarves and minarets and others seeking to restrict the erection of new mosques. Anti-immigration concerns in Europe are thinly disguised efforts to deter future Muslims from migrating.  Success in the war of terrorism seems to be equated with success in turning back the spread of Islam. Several states in the United States have even introduced ludicrous and shameful bills to outlaw Sharia.

How would a proclamation that Bin Laden was killed “for God and for country” be read in a place like Pakistan where the war on terror has been largely seen as a war on Islam and Muslims? If this was in fact uttered, as an American, I am saddened that eliminating the world’s most notorious killer was done “for God” first and country second. If it wasn’t uttered, such a gratuitous detail hardly helps the United States make its case that it opposes terrorists not Muslims.

Thus, as Fair, MacDonald, and others have made clear, the story of Nicholas Schmidle's New Yorker piece is about a lot more than a rousing story of American heroic derring-do.  It touches on issues of journalistic integrity, and of responsibility to the reading - and policy-making - public both in the US and abroad.  Fair hammers this - hard - in her conclusions:

Whether Americans and our allies like it or not, Pakistan and Pakistan’s populations are critical to U.S. interests.  This will be true for the foreseeable future.  Journalists have an important function: informing our publics.  Journalists’ reportage shapes how Americans see their country abroad and understand the countries with which the United States engages. It shapes our support for war, for foreign aid, for particular bilateral relations. The U.S. experience with the Iraq war illustrates the extreme limits of how a supine and incompetent press became the vehicle to mobilize an angry public for an ill-conceived and unjustifiable war of choice.  The United States will long pay the price for strategic error.

Journalists have an equally important, if less appreciated, role in shaping how the outside world sees us. With the internet, the entire world reads our press, watches our television and hears our radio broadcasts.  Media hype and hysteria, xenophobia, Islamophobia and more quotidian issues of inaccuracy and incaution with handling sensitive pieces of information are for the whole world to see and to judge us.

There are hugely significant lessons here, at a time when US neocons and their fellow travelers (I think of Elliot Abrams, Max Boot, John McCain, Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham, Fox News, and their ilk) are screaming for Obama to take a tougher stance vis-a-vis Asad's Syria and Qaddafi's Libya, yet - as anyone who checks in at Joshua Landis' excellent Syria Comment site - are doing so on the basis of incomplete information and often skewed reportage from not entirely reliable sources. 

Some of the same commentators are likewise trying to ratchet up concerns about the supposedly evil intentions of those nefarious mullahs of Iran.  The US public was stampeded into a stupid war against Saddam, and into vastly overblown military intervention in Afghanistan - the huge (and growing, well into the decades ahead) cost of which contributed mightily to the now tight downward spiral of our economy and our democratic system.  Shame on all of if we let them stampede us again - and, shame on The New Yorker and other usually respected journals if they don't take more care about the quality and integrity behind what they report.

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