The Perils of Reporting on Bergdahl

Monday, 09 Jun 2014 10:44 AM

By Jon Friedman

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The American media have a near-impossible task right now of trying to report conclusively and fairly about the fascinating saga of U.S. Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
 
This news story underscores how difficult it is to cover an ongoing story — especially such a sensitive one that has the potential to grow before our eyes, prompting some people to change their opinions about the subject on the fly. It becomes hard to differentiate between perception and reality. Welcome to "Wag the Dog," the terrific 1997 Robert De Niro-Dustin Hoffman movie about how the media distort what we think — only this Bergdahl story, of course, is in real life.
 
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry defended the Obama administration's decision to swap Sgt. Bergdahl for five top Taliban detainees, arguing that it would have seemed "offensive and incomprehensible" to leave behind one of our own prisoners of war. 
 
"To leave an American behind, in the hands of people that torture him, cut off his head, do any number of things, and we would consciously choose to do that? That's the other side of this equation," Kerry said on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "I don't think anybody would think that is the appropriate thing to do."
 
Ordinarily, news that an American POW was coming home would unleash a wave of feel-good news stories. You might expect to see impromptu parades, exhibitions of American flags adorning the homes of proud and grateful citizens, and even the unthinkable in 2014: bipartisan support for the president who made this action possible. 
 
But just about nothing is cut and dried any more, either for the sheer complexity of every issue nowadays or the potential for political gain by some vocal parties.
 
The Obama administration is facing heavy flak from those critics who believe that it was a mistake to free, under these (or perhaps any), circumstances the five senior Taliban individuals, potential enemies of the United States. They contend that these people can now return to the Taliban and cause harm to Americans and our nation's interests.
 
Whither the U.S. media in all of this debating?
 
Journalists would have an easier time catching that proverbial falling knife than covering this story. At least when Edward Snowden went on NBC News and talked with Brian Williams a few weeks ago, the whole story was right in front of us. Whether we supported Snowden (or Brian Williams, for that matter), we had a story to ponder, which had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end was Snowden's conversation with Williams. 
 
The media will surely — and perhaps unwittingly — serve to inflame the Bergdahl controversy simply by reporting on it. We probably won't shed much light on it — we're better at supplying heat, you know. But oh yeah, we'll be in there, just the same, adding to the spice with our questions and our speculation.
 
Problem is, we in the media know so little about the unfolding Bergdahl story. We don't have the data to draw a lot of learned conclusions about him. The process is incomplete. What if those Taliban loyalists decide to retire and become farmers, not terrorists? What if they rush back into the arms of their hate-filled U.S. enemies? 
 
It's entirely possible that the next U.S. president will have to answer for this Obama decision. And you can bet that the media will be there to inflame that situation, too.
 
Jon Friedman writes the Media Matrix blog for Indiewire.com. He is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution." Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.
 
 
 
 

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