During both, the truth can quickly disappear.
by Patrick Cockburn
Part 3 - The Misreporting of Wars and Epidemics
By the time I started to research a book about the Cork polio epidemic that would be titled Broken Boy, I had been reporting wars for 25 years, starting with the Northern Irish Troubles in the 1970s, then the Lebanese civil war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the war that followed Washington’s post-9/11 takeover of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq.
After publication of the book, I went on covering these endless conflicts for the British paper the Independent as well as new conflicts sparked in 2011 by the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
As the coronavirus pandemic began this January, I was finishing a book (just published), War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Confrontation with Iran. Almost immediately, I noticed strong parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the polio epidemic 64 years earlier.
Pervasive fear was perhaps the common factor, though little grasped by governments of this moment. Boris Johnson’s in Great Britain, where I was living, was typical in believing that people had to be frightened into lockdown, when, in fact, so many were already terrified and needed to be reassured.
I also noticed ominous similarities between the ways in which epidemics and wars are misreported. Those in positions of responsibility — President Donald Trump represents an extreme version of this — invariably claim victories and successes even as they fail and suffer defeats. The words of the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson came to mind. On surveying ground that had only recently been a battlefield, he asked an aide: “Did you ever think, sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”
This has certainly been true of wars, but no less so, it seemed to me, of epidemics, as Trump was indeed soon to demonstrate (over and over and over again). At least in retrospect, disinformation campaigns in wars tend to get bad press and be the subject of much finger wagging. But think about it a moment: it stands to reason that people trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other as well.
While the glib saying that “truth is the first casualty of war” has often proven a dangerous escape hatch for poor reporting or unthinking acceptance of a self-serving version of battlefield realities (spoon-fed by the powers-that-be to a credulous media), it could equally be said that truth is the first casualty of pandemics. The inevitable chaos that follows in the wake of the swift spread of a deadly disease and the desperation of those in power to avoid being held responsible for the soaring loss of life lead in the same direction.
There is, of course, nothing inevitable about the suppression of truth when it comes to wars, epidemics, or anything else for that matter. Journalists, individually and collectively, will always be engaged in a struggle with propagandists and PR men, one in which victory for either side is never inevitable.
Unfortunately, wars and epidemics are melodramatic events and melodrama militates against real understanding. “If it bleeds, it leads” is true of news priorities when it comes to an intensive care unit in Texas or a missile strike in Afghanistan. Such scenes are shocking but do not necessarily tell us much about what is actually going on.
The recent history of war reporting is not encouraging. Journalists will always have to fight propagandists working for the powers-that-be. Sadly, I have had the depressing feeling since Washington’s first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 that the propagandists are increasingly winning the news battle and that accurate journalism, actual eyewitness reporting, is in retreat.