The Whole World Keeps Watching

The BBC's man in Miami says the war for public opinion is as intense as the war for Baghdad

Of course, with nearly half the British population opposed to the war, it would seem only natural that such divisions should extend into the newsroom. Indeed internal tensions in the weeks preceding the war's outbreak were so high, BBC senior staffers were officially barred from marching in antiwar demonstrations, lest their reputation for objectivity be compromised.

In the end, bias may be in the eye of the beholder. How else to explain that while the British Left excoriates the BBC's newscasts, the American Left is increasingly championing them? Katha Pollitt, a long-time columnist for The Nation (perhaps America's most strident mass-market antiwar publication) saluted the BBC for its inclusion of antiwar sentiment and -- don't tell Alice Mahon -- its detailed "discussion of the bombing of civilians."

Fergal Parkinson is as fascinated by the American media as Kulchur is by Britain's. He's just finished a story for the BBC on the reaction of several American newspapers to the Defense Department's request not to run al-Jazeera-aired pictures of dead or captured U.S. servicemen. The Miami Herald, a publication few immediately brand as liberal in tone, "turns out to be quite left-wing," while he says the New York Times -- pilloried by conservatives for its alleged arch-liberal agenda -- turns out to be anything but.

"The Herald is determined not to sanitize this war," Parkinson notes admiringly of his interview with Tom Fiedler, that paper's executive editor. "Tom Fiedler chose to ignore the Defense Department because he said, 'War isn't clean.' If soldiers are dying, people need to know that. If prisoners of war are being captured, we need to know that. In his view -- and in my view -- he made the right decision. Publications like the New York Times chose not to show those pictures. He can't understand that, and I can't understand that either."

Fiedler told Parkinson of the key factor American newspapers played in ending the Vietnam War, recalling the eventual appearance of U.S. body bags on their front pages as the "turning point" in eroding that conflict's home front support. It's a role Parkinson says the Herald is prepared to repeat.

It's also a role that the radical wing of the antiwar movement, frustrated at its seeming impotence so far, is counting on. For anyone who has visited antiwar rallies over the past few months, the prevalence of posters equating George W. Bush and John Ashcroft's homeland security moves with Nazi imagery is highly disturbing. It's a viewpoint best summed up in University of Miami professor Jennifer Uleman's pronouncements to a Coral Gables teach-in this past November. Living under Bush was "how Germans must have felt" during the Weimar Republic, Uleman argued, comparing the president's policies to "the slow rise of National Socialism." To applause from several hundred attendees, she warned the audience not to be "good Germans" and concluded: "Something equally powerful is developing today."

This relativism finds its logical end with Columbia University professor Nicolas De Genova, who, drawing a similar round of applause from the 3000-strong crowd at his school's own teach-in on March 26, declared that "if we really [believe] that this war is criminal ... then we have to believe in the victory of the Iraqi people and the defeat of the U.S. war machine." As reported in Newsday and Columbia's campus paper, The Spectator, De Genova built on the spirit of Uleman's "good Germans" analogy. "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military," was his advice to antiwar activists. Referring to 1993's televised scenes of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by Somali paramilitaries, De Genova added: "I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus."

Such thinking may be morally repugnant to many -- including Kulchur -- but for Parkinson, it's all part of healthy debate, one he wishes the American media would give equal time to. "A BBC panelist asked how the suicide bomber who killed four U.S. Marines differed from a cruise missile launched via boat into Baghdad," he recalls of the previous evening's news broadcast. "The whole point of war is to adapt, and this is just the Iraqi forces adapting their tactics. And that's a point of view I've only heard on the BBC. And it's important that the BBC give voice to that perspective."

Kulchur would posit that comparing coalition troops who are carefully trying to avoid civilian deaths -- often at great self-risk -- with Iraqi troops firing from behind human shields, setting ambushes around soldiers waving white flags, and placing artillery batteries in residential neighborhoods, isn't just flawed logic; it's downright perverse.

Parkinson remains unmoved. "The BBC is entirely neutral," he counters. "The BBC is not trying to justify the war for the British government or for the Iraqi government. We're simply reporting what is fact, and the fact is, civilians are being killed as well as coalition forces."

These matters are more than merely academic for Parkinson. He returns to England next week to complete his "chemical training" and a possible reassignment to the Middle East as the BBC rotates in a fresh crew of correspondents. He's already finished his two weeks of "combat safety" preparations, living alongside a brigade of British Special Forces soldiers, learning how to report while dodging grenades, keeping an eye out for land mines, and administering first aid. With several British journalists having already been killed in Iraq, one would imagine Parkinson to be a bit tense. Instead he displays a remarkable sense of gallows humor.

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