Michael Colton frequently resorts to one-sided editorializing in his CBC Radio reports, but his performance last night on the national news program World at Six was one of the most spectacular breaches of CBC standards for accuracy, fairness, balance and impartiality, I’ve heard in years . The CBC Washington correspondent made one thing perfectly clear during his two-minute-and-nineteen-second report: Hamid Karzai has absolutely no right to criticize the U.S. or NATO and by doing so, the Afghan president is foolishly weakening American resolve to continue fighting this war.
“Hamid Karzai has a unique, often inflammatory, sometimes outright shocking way with words,” Colton declared after playing a two-second clip of Karzai speaking apparently in Pushto, one of six languages the Afghan leader knows. “At very least,” Colton continued, “he seems to believe he can say just about whatever he wants to and get away with it.”
Then, Colton played a three-second clip of Karzai — again apparently in Pushto — before delivering this judgment:
This weekend, Karzai was at it again. He recently threatened to label U.S. and NATO forces occupiers. Now, he’s calling them simply unwelcome, a group that he brazenly contends invaded Afghanistan with sinister motives to advance, as he put it, only their own interests.
In case CBC listeners weren’t appalled enough at Karzai’s barefaced impertinence, Colton went on to note: “Americans are getting fed up with the war and Karzai’s outrageous accusations are hardly helping.”
U.S. rightly displeased
The peg for Colton’s report was a weekend speech in Herat delivered by the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Colton plays a clip of the ambassador saying, “I must tell you that I find occasional comments from some of your leaders hurtful and inappropriate.” Colton follows that rather mild-sounding comment with some scathing words of his own and another clip of Eikenberry:
Colton: Western diplomats have been biting their tongues for years. In private, they’ve called Karzai an unreliable partner, utterly corrupt, perhaps even mentally unstable. But for once, that collective dismay and disgust spilled out into the open as Eikenberry cut loose with this harsh rebuke.
Clip: [Eikenberry] When they hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they’re only here to advance their own narrow interest and likened to the brutal enemies of the Afghan people, my people, in turn, they’re filled with confusion and they grow weary of our effort here.
Colton’s reporting suggests that the U.S. public’s growing opposition to the war results from Hamid Karzai’s ingratitude, not a lack of progress after 10 years of fighting. He concludes: “As Ambassador Eikenberry ominously put it in his parting shot at Karzai, ‘if there comes a point where the American people feel their soldiers are dying without a just cause, they’ll demand our forces come home.'”
“Ominously”? Hadn’t Colton himself just quoted Karzai as saying that foreign troops were “unwelcome”?
Colton’s “meltdown” reporting
Aside from his blatant editorializing, Colton’s report demonstrates the journalistic hazards of covering events thousands of kilometres away. Colton combines happenings in Washington (Obama’s plans to announce a partial troop withdrawal) with speeches in far-off Afghanistan. Such “meltdown” reporting does save a lot of money, but it can also lead to gross distortions. Whether inadvertently or not, Colton misses two key aspects of Karzai’s recent speeches that the Reuters news agency included in its reporting from Kabul:
In one recent fiery speech, Karzai warned that foreign soldiers risked being seen as occupiers because of civilian casualties they caused. Last week he said the West was polluting the country with weapons containing toxic chemicals.
Reuters also took the trouble to balance its report by interviewing a spokesman for the Afghan president who said some of Karzai’s meaning may have been lost in translation:
Karzai’s spokesman said some of the president’s comments had been misunderstood and warned against “over-reacting'” to constructive criticism, saying that Afghan people standing up for their own interests should not be dubbed offensive…
“The president has never termed international forces as occupying forces … He has said if the bombardment of civilian homes and civilians continue, there is a risk that (this view of western troops as occupiers) could become part of public opinion in Afghanistan,” Waheed Omer said…
“No one can deny that international community came to Afghanistan for the sake of their own interests in the first place. We as Afghans have every right … to make sure that international community’s presence also serves the interests of the people of Afghanistan,” Omer said.
Compared to the Reuters reporting from Afghanistan, Michael Colton’s piece from Washington simply conveys the official American spin. It’s a good example of stenographic reporting puffed up by woodsmithery. I can honestly say that when I was in charge of World at Six during the 1970s, a biased report such as this would never have made it to air.