PBS and NBC's symbiotic sins of omission

by Brad Jacobson

On Tuesday night, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and Newshour with Jim Lehrer presented two telling examples of how omitting information shapes public perception with regard to civilian casualties.

With Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, Williams explored the possible outcome of a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran:

WILLIAMS: Despite all the denials, what happens if a military strike takes place?

ENGEL: Well, it all has to do with geography. Iran is in an incredibly strategic location. The Straits of Hormuz, one of the world’s most important oil shipping routes. Iran has threatened to disrupt traffic in the Straits of Hormuz. In Iraq, the situation has been somewhat calmer recently, but Iranian-backed militias in Iraq could quickly destabilize the situation there. And in Israel, Iran has allies in both in Lebanon – Hezbollah – and in the Gaza Strip. Iran is talking about creating a line of fire from Tehran all the way to Jerusalem.

WILLIAMS: And look at, if you look at the neighborhood Iran is in, you think about the oil business, you think about the fact we’re paying four dollars a gallon now. What could happen?

ENGEL: I asked an oil analyst that very question. He said, “The price of a barrel of oil? Name your price. Three hundred, four hundred dollars a barrel.”

WILLIAMS: That could be the shock from such a military action. Richard, safe travels. Thanks for being here with us.

Not a word about how the shock from such a military action might obliterate the lives onto which those bombs would fall. Engel, whose overall past war coverage for NBC has been excellent, does provide a useful broad-stroke illustration of the chain of events that would likely occur. But the focus of this report is clear: oil and the price of gas.

While Engel at least touches on the violence such an attack might trigger, Williams crassly and ham-handedly boils down the repercussions of this potential military strike to a mere pocket book issue: when he looks “at the neighborhood Iran is in,” he sees not human beings with families and loved ones and lives; rather, he sees only the “oil business” and “the fact we’re paying four dollars a gallon now.” And he encourages similar tunnel vision in his viewers, directly projecting these sole concerns onto them, saying “you look,” “you think” and “we’re paying,” and ending with the definitive summation: “That could be the shock from such a military action.”

After years of war under the Bush administration, after thousands of U.S. troop deaths and estimates of Iraqi civilian fatalities topping 1.2 million, Williams’ cavalier disregard of the impact of such a strike on Iranian civilians sounds eerily close to the war room dialogue in Dr. Strangelove. Only this isn’t satire. So his reporting is all the more negligent, irresponsible and chilling.

Meanwhile, on PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Lehrer was delivering the top stories of the day, when he said:

In Afghanistan, coalition forces reported they killed 33 insurgents overnight. A U.S. military official said helicopters and a bomber attacked large groups of fighters in the eastern Khost province, near the Pakistani border.

More than 2,100 people have been killed in the Afghan violence this year. Most were anti-government militants.

Most may have been anti-government militants. But Lehrer failed to mention that civilians comprised nearly 700 of those 2,100 “killed in Afghan violence this year.” Roughly one-third of all deaths there. The war in Afghanistan sounds a little less successful when you include that number and consider it in context: in the first half of this year, for every two militants killed by U.S. and coalition forces, one Afghan civilian was killed.

Thus, even when innocent civilians are actively being slaughtered in great numbers, they receive little, or, as in this case, no attention. (Think about the last time you heard anything on network news regarding the massive loss of life among Iraqi civilians.)

But Lehrer managed to present multiple sins of omission in this seconds-long report, failing also to mention that June marked the deadliest month in Afghanistan for U.S. and coalition forces since the beginning of the war. Agence-France Presse, covering the same story, reported yesterday:

But the violence came as the international troops passed a grim milestone, with the 49 soldiers who died in June making it their bloodiest month yet in Afghanistan and worse than Iraq for the second month in a row.

And just as troop casualties are on the rise in Afghanistan, so too are civilians deaths – up 62% in the first half of 2008.

Again, not exactly the success story Lehrer seemed to paint.

In their respective reports, Williams and Lehrer’s sins of omission render civilians – who worldwide today suffer the greatest number of war fatalities – non-entities, even less than statistics, as they’ve been completely factored out of the equation. How many civilians in Iran might lose their lives if attacked by the U.S. or Israel? How many in Afghanistan have already been killed and continue to be slaughtered in ever rising numbers?

The networks have more important things to cover. So much for that age-old adage: If it bleeds, it leads.

Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.

7 replies »

  1. . . . in the first half of this year, for every three militants killed by U.S. and coalition forces, one Afghan civilian was killed.

    Worse, it’s actually for every two militants killed, one civilian was killed. (Or, of every three people killed, one was a civilian.)

  2. Lack of concern for “collateral damage” is an American tradition. We don’t do empathy, sympathy, compassion — none of that stuff — for civilians in countries that have been deemed enemies. Never mind Arabs, that even applies to Aryans.

    Heard about this new book, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles MacDonogh? Writes Paul Craig Roberts at

    MacDonogh’s book, After the Reich, dispels the comfortable myth of generous allied treatment of defeated Germany. Having discarded all moral scruples, the allies fell upon the vanquished country with brutal occupation. Hundreds of thousands of women raped; hundreds of thousands of Germans died in deportations; a million German prisoners of war died in captivity.

    Happy 4th!

  3. Hundreds of thousands of women raped; hundreds of thousands of Germans died in deportations; a million German prisoners of war died in captivity.

    The vast majority of the above was the result of Soviet actions…not that we’re any angels. The point here IS to keep the facts straight.

    And one could make a case that the Germans had reaped what they had sown…

  4. Thanks for correcting me, Nebris. I forgot that “allied” includes Russia. I’m looking forward to reading that book.

    Send my regards to Sister One.

  5. Yup. The fire-bombing of Dresden was no picnic with slaw either. And that of course was before the surrender and occupation. Dresden was a cultural center filled with citizens, not a viable military target. Kurt Vonnegut, from whom I first learned of these bombings through reading Slaughterhouse Five, discusses his experience of the aftermath here:

  6. War is evil. Civilians get maimed, killed, thrown out of their homes, raped, enslaved and robbed. This has been the way of war since we first began waging it. The only difference is that for a brief shining moment a few nations decided to say that it might be a nice idea if we didn’t do all that. Then people put their heads back down and got on with business as usual.