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How Many Dead? Major networks aren't counting

December 12, 2001

How many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since the start of U.S.-led bombing on October 7? Journalists and aid workers have limited access to the area, so it's an admittedly difficult question to answer. But many U.S. media outlets don't seem to be trying very hard.

None of the three major networks' nightly newscasts are offering even rough tallies of the mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan. ABC World News Tonight, however, has followed the story somewhat more seriously than either the CBS Evening News or NBC Nightly News, which both regularly frame discussion of civilian deaths in terms of their value in the "propaganda war." Questions about the legality of those U.S. targeting decisions that led to strikes on civilians were rarely raised on any network.

It may be some time before a full accounting is possible, but relief agencies and a few noteworthy news stories do provide information about the scale of the devastation. As a "conservative" estimate, Doctors Without Borders has stated that civilian casualties are already in the hundreds and rising (NPR, 12/6/01). On the high end, a compilation of international press reports by a University of New Hampshire professor suggests there may be over 3,500 civilian deaths (

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced strong concern about the loss of civilian life, and have both independently called for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs. Though it was not widely reported in the U.S. press-- and not at all on ABC, CBS or NBC-- Amnesty has also demanded "an immediate and full investigation into what may have been violations of international and humanitarian law such as direct attacks on civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks" by the U.S. military (press release, 10/26/01).

Some in the U.S. media, however, have suggested that Afghans don't mind being killed by U.S. bombs. "It turns out many of those Afghan 'civilians' were praying for another dose of B- 52's to liberate them from the Taliban, casualties or not" wrote foreign affairs commentator Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 11/23/01).

Even some of the more extensive U.S. reporting on civilian casualties-- which came last week, after U.S. bombing near Tora Bora destroyed two villages and killed over 100 civilians-- seemed surprised at Afghans' negative response. CBS's Randall Pinkston reported that "at least 100 people" had been killed, but claimed that until recently, "many Afghans" were "raising few objections to civilians accidentally killed in U.S. bombing attacks." He noted that the killings had provoked criticism of American policy, and called this "a troubling new reaction" (CBS Evening News, 12/1/01).

One forthright story on the killings near Tora Bora, by NBC correspondent Mike Taibbi (12/3/01), stood in marked contrast not only to the general trend in reporting on other networks, but to NBC's previous coverage of civilian casualties as well. Taibbi investigated the destroyed villages in person, juxtaposing his findings-- which included a fragment of U.S. missile, serial number intact-- with the Pentagon's claim that it was unlikely the incident had occurred.

Unfortunately, this kind of independent approach was the exception rather than the rule on the nightly news shows. Claims that Afghan civilians had been killed were often reported as unsubstantial, utterly unverifiable salvos in the so-called "propaganda war." One report by CBS's David Martin (10/23/01) claimed that the Taliban's "chief weapon seems to be pictures they say are innocent civilians killed or injured by the bombing." Martin went on to say that the Pentagon admits to "a few instances of bombs hitting civilians," but made no mention of any estimates, from the Pentagon or elsewhere, of the actual number of people killed.

This pattern was repeated several times on the CBS Evening News. A November 6 CBS report stated that George Bush had "opened a new public relations front in the war on terrorism" because "claims of heavy civilian casualties have provoked howls of protest" in Muslim countries. No mention was made of whether such claims were factual, or, as the belittling "howl" might suggest, merely a PR ploy. The next day, CBS again returned to the Taliban "propaganda machine," with David Martin reporting that "usually it airs claims of civilian casualties by American bombing." Again, no mention was made of whether, where or how many civilians had actually been killed.

A few weeks earlier (10/18/01), Martin filed a report showing images of dead civilians, but included no information about the people-- except that they were complicating the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "says the determination to avoid scenes like these of civilians apparently killed by American bombs makes the terrorist hunt more difficult," reported Martin.

NBC Nightly News also tended to present reports of the U.S. military killing civilians as primarily a propaganda issue. In a report (11/4/01) about America's battle "to protect its image as a compassionate nation," NBC correspondent Dan Lothian gave a thumbnail sketch of "the war on terrorism as reported in the Arab world." With no apparent sense of irony, Lothian catalogued the Arab media's propaganda: "Daily doses of news concerning civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Graphic pictures below front page headlines. Compelling stories on cable TV, as well." Daily news, graphic pictures and compelling stories-- a threatening arsenal indeed.

"The first casualties of this war were thousands of American civilians," said Lothian in his wrap-up. "Now, as the Taliban is targeted for protecting the terrorists of Al-Qaeda, the U.S. is also fighting a public relations war." It's a difficult passage to parse, but the meaning seems to be that first, American civilians were attacked by terrorists, and now, the United States' image is being attacked with equal mercilessness.

NBC's most persistent advocate of the propaganda perspective, however, was Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, who several times portrayed reports of Afghan civilian casualties as an assault on the U.S. Despite the U.S. military's "overwhelming firepower," reported Miklaszewski (10/15/01), "the Pentagon is on the defensive today." Why? Because "the Taliban took foreign journalists on a guided tour of the village of Karam, where they claim US bombs killed 200 civilians." Later, the Pentagon was still "fighting the propaganda war" by "denying Taliban claims that American bombs have killed more than 1,000 innocent civilians" (10/24/01). The report did not investigate what a more accurate figure might be, or whether any civilians had been killed at all.

A few days later (10/29/01), Miklaszewski again had the Pentagon "on the defensive" against "charges that American bombs are killing hundreds of civilians," noting that "Rumsfeld says the ultimate blame lies with those who started the war." Despite Rumsfeld's implicit acknowledgement that some civilians-- perhaps hundreds-- had been killed, NBC again failed to ask how many, where or why.

In comparison to CBS and NBC's poor performances, ABC World News Tonight did somewhat better at reporting specific numbers and locations of instances when U.S. bombs hit civilians. Reporter David Wright devoted attention to civilian casualties as an issue in their own right, noting, for example, that "even when the target's the front line, the trouble is, people live here" (10/28/01). ABC has not, however, focused on the important questions raised by groups like Amnesty International about the legality of U.S. strikes.

When media portray reports of civilian casualties as an attack on America, it's hardly surprising that serious reporting on the issue is scarce. It is crucial that news outlets independently investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan-- not only many there have been, but how and why they happened.

ACTION: Please ask the three major networks' nightly news shows to investigate how many civilians have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of U.S. military action, and to examine the legality of those attacks.

CONTACT: ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings Phone: 212-456-4040 Fax: 212-456-2795 [email protected]

CBS Evening News with Dan Rather Phone: 212-975-3691 Fax: 212-975-1893 [email protected]

NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw Phone: 212-664-4971 Fax: 202-362-2009 [email protected]

As always, please remember that your comments are taken more seriously if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc [email protected] with your correspondence.

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