Sunday, October 24, 2004

Why I don't trust the media - part one of many

I was leafing through a copy of the Sept 13th issue of Time magazine (yeah, I know, I'm typically a month late getting to any magazine), and came across their story on the "Struggle for the Soul of Islam." The title page of the article has an arresting picture of some Afghan tribesmen at prayer in the desert, with a lake and a striking mountain rising in the distance behind them, and the caption: "Along a stretch of the Pakistani border crawling with al-Qaeda guerillas, conservative Waziri tribesmen stop to pray in the direction of Mecca."

I have a small problem with that. The place where the picture was taken was the Sadr Band lake - a man-made lake (I assume constructed by the Soviets, since the dam says CCCP 1967 on it) at the end of the Sadr river. It's located on the road between Sharana (the capital of Paktika province) and Ghazni (the capital of Ghazni province), and the road from Gardez (the capital of Paktia province) runs north-south nearby. So, for southeastern Afghanistan, its a pretty well-visited place. A lot of truckers pass through there, and a lot of passenger cars and vans, and many of them stop near the lake to eat or to pray.

What it is not is along the Pakistani border. Believe me, it is located many, many grueling kilometers from anything near the border. While it's located in Paktika province, which does share a border with Pakistan, it's as far from the border as you can get and still be in Paktika. Claiming that it's is located along the Pakistani border is like claiming Atlanta is a seaside community because Georgia has a coastline.

Nor is it "crawling with al-Qaeda guerrillas." I don't doubt that some anti-coalition militia (al-Qaeda, HIG, Taliban, et al) pass through there - the place is, after all, along the major route between Sharana, Orgun -E, and Khost on one side, and Ghazni on the other. But there's very little guerilla activity in the area - there are too many Americans in Zormat, Ghazni, Gardez and Sharana to make that tenable - when I was there, the guerillas in Paktika were at the other end of the province, along the Paki border in places like Wazarqua and Torwah. There is a road that leads between the mountains on one side of the Zormat valley and the Sadr Band, and that road was used by smugglers, terrorists and common criminals to avoid the main roads. However, the Americans have been patrolling that road, and one of the major Taliban figures in southeastern Afghanistan recently met an ugly end in a compound near there, so its not nearly as popular with the bad guys as it once was.

It does make a striking picture, though (the mountain in the background is visible for miles, and the contrast of lake and desert, mountain and sky makes for an impressive composition) and it's a lot safer for a Time photog than actually going to the border. Does it make any difference to the story that its not what Time magazine says it is? Not really, in this case - but it does illustrate what I think is a persistent problem with the media: Their willingness to exaggerate, to distort and to make things up if necessary to make a more sensational story. I don't see a whole lot of difference between Time deciding that this was a picture of the Pakistani border, because it made their point a little better, and CBS deciding to use fairly amateurish forgeries to try to smear GW Bush, all because it made a better story. If it makes a better story, then use it, whether it's true or not. That kind of blending of fact and fiction is supposed to be the hallmark of the storyteller or the autobiographer - not of a journalist, who's allegiance ought to be to a true story instead of a better story. These guys are 0-2 with me - this is the second time that Time has run a story where I can say "I know that's not true because I was there and I know better." If they've missed everything I know about, how much faith should I have in their other work, or, by extension, in the work of most media outlets? I've decided that the thing to remember is when a journalist refers to his work as a "story", he's absolutely right - its a piece of fiction designed to entertain, perhaps to persuade, maybe even to exhort, but not to be taken seriously as a reflection of what's happening in the real world.


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