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Ashleigh Banfield
Landon Lecture
April 24, 2003

 

Thank you very much. Thank you, Mr. President. That was a very kind introduction. I would love to say that I'm a hero and was able to save this woman, but she was fine. I just gave her a quick checkover and she was just fine. But it was quite an adventure, nonetheless, and Chuck and I have a story to tell for the rest of time.

Thank you so much, by the way, for inviting me to be here. This is a real treat and a real honor. The last time I was in Manhattan, Kansas, there were a lot of other stories that were making top headlines, not the least of which were the anniversary of 9-11, the continued hunt for Osama bin Laden, the whereabouts of Elizabeth Smart, and what was to become of Saddam Hussein; and we have some resolution on very few of these stories, but we certainly know at least what Saddam Hussein is not up to these days, and it's leading Iraq.

So I suppose you watch enough television to know that the big TV show is over and that the war is now over essentially -- the major combat operations are over anyway, according to the Pentagon and defense officials -- but there is so much that is left behind. And I'm not just talking about the most important thing, which is, of course, the leadership of a Middle Eastern country that could possibly become an enormous foothold for American and foreign interests. But also what Americans find themselves deciding upon when it comes to news, and when it comes to coverage, and when it comes to war, and when it comes to what's appropriate and what's not appropriate any longer.

I think we all were very excited about the beginnings of this conflict in terms of what we could see for the first time on television. The embedded process, which I'll get into a little bit more in a few moments, was something that we've never experienced before, neither as reporters nor as viewers. The kinds of pictures that we were able to see from the front lines in real time on a video phone, and sometimes by a real satellite link-up, was something we'd never seen before and were witness to for the first time.

And there are all sorts of good things that come from that, and there are all sorts of terrible things that come from that. The good things are the obvious. This is one more perspective that we all got when it comes to warfare, how it's fought and how tough these soldiers are, what the conditions are like and what it really looks like when they're firing those M-16s rapidly across a river, or across a bridge, or into a building.

There were a lot of journalists who were skeptical of this embedding process before we all embarked on this kind of news coverage before this campaign. Many thought that this was just another element of propaganda from the American government. I suppose you could look at it that way. It certainly did show the American side of things, because that's where we were shooting from. But it also showed what can go wrong.

It also gave journalists, including Al-Jazeera journalists and Arab television journalists and Arab newspaper journalists, who were also embedded, it also gave them the opportunity to see without any kinds of censorship how these fights were being fought, how these soldiers were behaving, what the civil affairs soldiers were doing, and what the humanitarian assistants really looked like. Was it just a line we were being fed, or were they really on the ground with boxes of water and boxes of food?

So for that element alone it was a wonderful new arm of access that journalists got to warfare. Perhaps not that new, because we all knew what it looked like at Vietnam and what a disaster that was for the government, but this did put us in a very, very close line of sight to the unfolding disasters.

That said, what didn't you see? You didn't see where those bullets landed. You didn't see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage-? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story. And that's what we got, and it was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful terrific endeavor, and we got rid oaf horrible leader: We got rid of a dictator, we got rid of a monster, but we didn't see what it took to do that.

I can't tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you've got to be on both sides. You've got to be a unilateral, someone who's able to cover from outside of both front lines, which, by the way, is the most dangerous way to cover a war, which is the way most of us covered Afghanistan. There were no front lines, they were all over the place. They were caves, they were mountains, they were cobbled, they were everything. But we really don't know from this latest adventure from the American military what this thing looked like and why perhaps we should never do it again. The other thing is that so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason.

That just seems to be a trend of late, and l am worried that it may be a reflection of what the news was and how the news coverage was coming across. This was a success, it was a charge it took only three weeks. We did wonderful things and we freed the Iraqi people, many of them by the way, who are quite thankless about this. There's got to be a reason for that. And the reason for it is because we don't have a very good image right now overseas, and a lot of Americans aren't quite sure why, given the fact that we sacrificed over a hundred soldiers to give them freedom.

Well, the message before we went in was actually weapons of mass destruction and eliminating the weapons of mass destruction from this regime and eliminating this regime. Conveniently in the week or two that we were in there it became very strongly a message of freeing the Iraqi people. That should have been the message early on, in fact, in the six to eight months preceding this campaign, if we were trying to win over the hearts of the Arab world.

That is a very difficult endeavor and from my travels to the Arab world, we're not doing a very good job of it. What you read in the newspapers and what you see on cable news and what you see on the broadcast news networks is nothing like they see over there, especially in a place like Iraq, where all they have access to is a newspaper called Babble, if you can believe it. It's really called Babble. And it was owned by well, owned and operated by Uday, who you know now is the crazier of Saddam's sons. And this is the kind of material that they have access to, and it paints us as the great Satan regularly, or at least it used to. I'm sure it's not in production right now. And it's not unlike many of the other newspapers in the Arab world either. You can't blame these poor sorts for not liking us. All they know is that we're crusaders. All they know is that we're imperialists. All they know is that we want their oil. They don't know otherwise. And I'll tell you, a lot of the people I spoke with in Afghanistan had never heard of the Twin Towers and most of them couldn't recognize a picture of George Bush.

So you're dealing with populations who don't know better and who are very suspect as to who these news liberators are, because every liberator before has just reeked havoc upon their lives and their children and their world. So I wasn't the least bit surprised to see these marches and these pilgrimages in the last few days telling the Americans, "Thanks for the freedom to march to Najaf and Karbala, but get out." You know, this wasn't that big of a surprise. I think it may be a surprise though to the Pentagon. I'm not sure that they were ready to deal with this many dissenters and this many supporters of an Islamic regime, like next door in Iran.

That will be a very interesting story to follow in the coming weeks and months, as to how this vacuum is filled and how we go about presenting a democracy to these people when -- if we give them democracy they probably will ask us to get out, which is exactly what many of them want.

But it's interesting to be able to cover this. There's nothing in the world like being able to cross a green line whenever you want and speak to both sides of a conflict. I can't tell you how horrible and wonderful it is at the same time in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel. There are very few people in this world who can march right across guarded check points, closed military zones, and talk to Palestinians in the same day that they almost embedded with Israeli troops, and that's something that we get to do on a regular basis.

And I just wish that the leadership of all these different entities, ours included, could do the same thing, because they would have an eye opening experience, horrible and wonderful, all at the same time, and it would give a lot of insight as to how messages are heard and how you can negotiate. Because you cannot negotiate when someone can't hear you or refuses to hear you or can't even understand your language, and that's clearly what's happening in a lot of places in the world right now, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, not the least of which there's very little listening and understanding going on. Our language is entirely different than theirs, and I don't just mean the words. When you hear the word Hezbollah you probably think evil, danger, terror right away. If I could just see a show of hands. Who thinks that Hezbollah is a bad word? Show of hands. Usually connotes fear, terror, some kind of suicide bombing. If you live in the Arab world, Hezbollah means Shriner. Hezbollah means charity, Hezbollah means hospitals, Hezbollah means welfare and jobs.

These are not the same organizations we're dealing with. How can you negotiate when you' re talking about two entirely different meanings? And until we understand -- we don't have to like Hizbullah, we don't have to like their militancy, we don't have to like what they do on the side, but we have to understand that they like it, that they like the good things about Hizbullah, and that you can't just paint it with a blanket statement that it's a terrorist organization, because even when it comes to the militancy these people believe that militancy is simply freedom fighting and resistance. You can't argue with that. You can try to negotiate, but you can't say it's wrong flat out.

And that's some of the problems we have in dealing in this war in terror. As a journalist I'm often ostracized just for saying these messages, just for going on television and saying, "Here's what the leaders of Hezbullah are telling me and here's what the Lebanese are telling me and here's what the Syrians have said about Hezbullah. Here's what they have to say about the Golan Heights." Like it or lump it, don't shoot the messenger, but invariably the messenger gets shot.

We hired somebody on MSNBC recently named Michael Savage. Some of you may know his name already from his radio program. He was so taken aback by my dare to speak with Al -Aqsa Martyrs Brigade about why they do what they do, why they're prepared to sacrifice themselves for what they call a freedom fight and we call terrorism. He was so taken aback that he chose to label me as a slut on the air. And that's not all, as a porn star. And that's not all, as an accomplice to the murder of Jewish children. So these are the ramifications for simply being the messenger in the Arab world.

How can you discuss, how can you solve anything when attacks from a mere radio flak is what America hears on a regular basis, let alone at the government level? I mean, if this kind of attitude is prevailing, forget discussion, forget diplomacy, diplomacy is becoming a bad word.

I'm fascinated to find out how we are going to diplomatically fix what's broken now in Iraq because nobody thinks Jay Garner is going to be a leader for Iraq. They don't want him to be a leader. He says he doesn't want to be a leader, but he sure as heck wants to put a leader in there that is akin with our interests here in America so that we don't have to face this trouble again. Clearly it's the same kind of idea we had in Afghanistan with Hamid Karzai. You know, they all look at him as a puppet, we look at him as a success story. Again, two different languages being spoken and not enough coverage of that side.

Again, I'm not saying support for that side. There are a lot of things that I hate about that side but there's got to be the coverage, there's got to be the journalism, and sometimes that is really missing in our effort to make good TV and good cable news.

When I said the war was over I kind of mean that in the sense that cards are being pulled from this famous deck now of the 55 most wanted, and they're sort of falling out of the deck as quickly as the numbers are falling off the rating chart for the cable news stations. We have plummeted into the basement in the last week. We went from millions of viewers to just a few hundred thousand in the course of a couple of days.

Did our broadcasting change? Did we get boring? Did we all a sudden lose our flair? Did we start using language that people didn't want to hear? No, I think you've just had enough. I think you've seen the story, you've' seen how it ended, it ended pretty well in most American's view; it's time to move on.

What's the next big story? Is it Laci Peterson? Because Laci Peterson got a whole lot more minutes' worth of coverage on the cable news channels in the last week than we'd have ever expected just a few days after a regime fell, like Saddam Hussein.

I don't want to suggest for a minute that we are shallow people, we Americans. At times we are, but I do think that the phenomenon of our attention deficit disorder when it comes to watching television news and watching stories and then just being finished with them, I think it might come from the saturation that you have nowadays. You cannot walk by an airport monitor, you can't walk by most televisions in offices these days, in the public, without it being on a cable news channel. And if you're not in front of a TV you're probably in front of your monitor, where there is Internet news available as well.

You have had more minutes of news on the Iraq war in just the three-week campaign than you likely ever got in the years and years of network news coverage of Vietnam. You were forced to wait for it till six o'clock every night and the likelihood that you got more than about eight minutes of coverage in that half hour show, you probably didn't get a whole lot more than that, and it was about two weeks old, some of that footage, having been shipped back. Now it's real time and it is blanketed to the extent that we could see this one arm of the advance, but not where the bullets landed.

But I think the saturation point is reached faster because you just get so much so fast, so absolutely in real time that it is time to move on. And that makes our job very difficult, because we tend to leave behind these vacuums that are left uncovered. When was the last time you saw a story about Afghanistan? It's only been a year, you know. Only since the major combat ended, you were still in Operation Anaconda in not much more than 11 or 12 months ago, and here we are not touching Afghanistan at all on cable news.

There was just a memorandum that came through saying we're closing the Kabul bureau. The Kabul bureau has only been staffed by one person for the last several months, Maria Fasal, she's Afghan and she wanted to be there, otherwise I don't think anyone would have taken that assignment. There's just been no allotment of TV minutes for Afghanistan.

And I am very concerned that the same thing is about to happen with Iraq, because we're going to have another Gary Condit, and we're going to have another Chandra Levy and we're going to have another Jon Benet, and we're going to have another Elizabeth Smart, and here we are in Laci Peterson, and these stories will dominate. They're easy to cover, they're cheap, they're fast, you don't have to send somebody overseas, you don't have to put them up in a hotel that's expensive overseas, and you don't have to set up satellite time overseas. Very cheap to cover domestic news. Domestic news is music news to directors' ears.

But is that what you need to know? Don't you need to know what our personality is overseas and what the ramifications of these campaigns are? Because we went to Iraq, according to the President, to make sure that we were going to be safe from weapons of mass destruction, that no one would attack us. Well, did everything all of a sudden change? The terror alert went down. All of a sudden everything seems to be better, but I can tell you from living over there, it's not.

There are a lot of people who hate us, and it only takes one man who's crazy enough to strap a bunch of suicide devices onto his body to let us know that he can instill fear in even a place like Manhattan. You know, you're not immune from it. One suicide bomb in a mall in a small town in America can paralyze this country, because every small town will think it's vulnerable, not just New York, not just D.C., not just L.A., everybody. And we may not be far from that, and I'm desperately depressed that it's come to this, that it's come to the American shores in the worst way.

I was under the second tower when it came down in New York City on September 11th. I have a real stake in this, and I've got two friends whose remains haven't been found yet at the Trade Center, and that stays with you for quite awhile. It's important that we continue to want to know what happens overseas when we leave. It's important to demand coverage of these things. It's important because your safety and your future and your world and your children will depend on this stuff.

If we had paid more attention to Afghanistan in the '80s we might not have had 9-11. If we hadn't left it in such a mess, we might not have had 9-11 and three thousand people would be alive to talk to you today. If we do the same thing in lraq it is possible that without you even knowing, a brand new federation is formed where deals are made in secret, because the leadership is not allowed to talk about America in good ways, the street would blow up. Because that's essentially what happens everywhere else in the Arab world right now. You can't talk about making deals and allowing the Americans to use your military bases or you will be out like the Shah. Not in the election, of course, but you'd be out like the Shah. And most of these people worry about that. I'm very concerned that Iraq may end up the same way.

There was a reporter in the New York Times a couple days ago at the Pentagon. It was a report on the ground in Iraq that the Americans were going to have four bases that they would continue to use possibly on a permanent basis inside Iraq, kind of in a star formation, the north, the south, Baghdad and out west. Nobody was able to actually say what these bases would be used for, whether it was forward operations, whether it was simple access, but it did speak volumes to the Arab world who said, "You see, we told you the Americans were coming for their imperialistic need. They needed a foothold, they needed to control something in central and west Asia to make sure that we all next door come into line."

And these reports about Syria, well, they may have been breezed over fairly quickly here, but they are ringing loud still over there. Syria's next. And then Lebanon. And look out lran.

So whether we think it's plausible or whether the government even has any designs like that, the Arabs all think it's happening and they think it's for religious purposes for the most part. Again, most of them are so uneducated and they have such little access to media, what they do get is a very bad story, and there's no reason why they shouldn't be afraid as they are. You know, they just don't have the luck that we do of open information.

One of the things I wanted to mention about the technology of this war, because I know that we've got questions that we want to get to, so I'll just tell you a little bit about some of the technology and how that's changed, perhaps not only how the fighters behave, but how we see things.

The tanks and the vehicles that are used in the front lines are so high tech that an artillery engineer can actually pinpoint a target that looks like a tiny stick man on a screen and simply destroy the target without ever seeing a warm body.

Some of the soldiers, according to our embeds had never seen a dead body throughout the entire three-week campaign. It was like Game Boy. I think that's amazing in two different ways. It makes you a far more successful warrior because you can just barrel right along but it takes away a lot of what war is all about, which is what I mentioned earlier. The TV technology took that away too. We couldn't see where the bullets landed. Nobody could see the horrors of this so that we seriously revisit the concept of warfare the next time we have to deal with it.

I think there were a lot of dissenting voices before this war about the horrors of war, but I'm very concerned about this three-week TV show and how it may have changed people's opinions. It was very sanitized.

It had a very brief respite from the sanitation when Terry Lloyd was killed, the ITN, and when David Bloom was killed and when Michael Kelley was killed. We all sort of sat back for a moment and realized, "God, this is ugly. This is hitting us at home now. This is hitting the noncombatants." But that went away quickly too.

This TV show that we just gave you was extraordinarily entertaining, and I really hope that the legacy that it leaves behind is not one that shows war as glorious, because there's nothing more dangerous than a democracy that thinks this is a glorious thing to do.

War is ugly and it's dangerous, and in this world the way we are discussed on the Arab street, it feeds and fuels their hatred and their desire to kill themselves to take out Americans. It's a dangerous thing to propagate.

I hope diplomacy is not dead. I hope that Colin Powell at one point would like to continue revisiting the French. I hope that he has success in Syria at some point with Basha Assad.

Whenever that meeting is going to happen, and I sure hope we focus on the Middle East, and I sure hope that some kind of peace plan is revisited and attention is paid -- American attention is paid to the plight of the Israelis and the Palestinians on an equal basis and that some kind of resolution is made there, because that is the root of so much of the anger. For right or wrong, it's the selling point of all the dictators and despots and leaders overseas. They use that as a pawn any chance they get. Osama loves to sell the Palestinian's cause. I don't even think he cares a hoot about the Palestinians, believe it or not, but he uses it for his cult following to increase his leadership. That is something that we don't understand the power of overseas, and we must. And television has to play a better part in that.

We haven't been back to the West Bank since Operation Defensive Shield last year. It's been a good solid year since we gave you wall-to-wall coverage on what's been going on in the West Bank and Gaza. Hell, we just raided Rafa again. I mean, the Israelis had an incredible raid in Rafa, one of the deadliest in years, but it barely made headlines here.

Again, it is crucial to our security that we are interested in this, because when you are interested I can respond. If I put this on the air right now, you'll turn it off and we'll lose our numbers, as we're finding we're losing now the numbers being so much lower than they were last week.

There is another whole phenomenon that's come about from this war. Many talk about it as the Fox effect, the Fox news effect. I know everyone of you has watched it. It's not a dirty little secret. A lot of people describe Fox as having streamers and banners coming out of the television as you're watching it cover a war. But the Fox effect is very concerning to me.

I'm a journalist and I like to be able to tell the story as I see it, and I hate it when someone tells me I'm one-sided. It's the worst I can hear. Fox has taken so many viewers away from CNN and MSNBC because of their agenda and because of their targeting the market of cable news viewership, that I'm afraid there's not a really big place in cable for news. Cable is for entertainment, as it's turning out, but not news.

I'm hoping that I will have a future in news in cable, but not the way some cable news operators wrap themselves in the American flag and patriotism and go after a certain target demographic, which is very lucrative. You can already see the effects, you can already see the big hires on other networks, right wing hires to chase after this effect, and you can already see that flag waving in the corners of those cable news stations where they have exciting American music to go along with their war coverage.

Well, all of this has to do with what you've seen on Fox and its successes. So I do urge you to be very discerning as you continue to watch the development of cable news, and it is changing like lightning. Be very discerning because it behooves you like it never did before to watch with a grain of salt and to choose responsibly, and to demand what you should know.

That's it. I know that there's probably a couple questions. No one's allowed to ask about my hair color, okay? I'm kidding, if you want to ask you can. It's a pretty boring story. But I just wanted to say thank you, and let's all pray and hope in any way that you pray or hope for peace and for democracy around the world, and for more rain this summer in Manhattan. Thank you all.