The quality of US reporting on Pakistan is lacking. This is increasingly evident from the number of reports filed by respected, award-winning journalists at mainstream media outlets that end up proven inaccurate. While some of the confusion may be due to the generally complex nature of US-Pakistan relations, producers and journalists need to re-examine their processes for vetting sources and confirming information before it is released. With the stakes as they are, we simply cannot afford to keep making mistakes.
In the most recent example, ABC News reporters Matthew Cole and Nick Schifrin reported yesterday that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon threatened to send Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani back to Islamabad if Raymond Davis is not released. This report was immediately denied by the Pakistani Ambassador via Twitter, “Read my tweet: No US official has conveyed any personal threats 2 me or spoken of escalating tensions.”
When ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper responded, “That’s not a denial,” the Pakistani Ambassador reiterated his denial: “This is: Read my tweets: No US official, incl the NSA, has conveyed any personal threats 2 me or spoken of extreme measures.”
What is curious about the report by Cole and Schifrin is that they didn’t seem to ask the Pakistani Ambassador who, as demonstrated by his Twitter feed, is quite accessible to journalists. Instead, they cited “two Pakistani officials involved in negotiations about Davis” and “a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.”
Ambassador Haqqani noted that the Pakistani officials Cole and Schifrin spoke to could not have known what was said in the meeting with NSA Donilon as he was the only Pakistani present. As for the senior U.S. official who confirmed the report, we would be wise to remember that senior government officials have been known to feed high profile journalists statements designed not to inform, but to influence public opinion. Examples of this behavior were well documented in Bob Woodward’s most recent book, Obama’s Wars1.
Following the ABC News report, Pakistani English-language daily Dawn spoke with the US Embassy in Islamabad which described the ABC News report as “not true”, a position confirmed by an official press release from the Embassy early this morning which describes the story as “simply inaccurate.”
But ABC News is not the only major media outlet that’s come under fire for its reporting on Pakistan recently. We have observed in the past that The New York Times has occasionally published problematic coverage of Pakistan, and Pakistani blogger Syed Yahya Hussainy earlier this week criticized The New York Times for relying on the same individuals for comment on issues despite evidence that they may not be neutral observers.
Additionally, as we noted on Wednesday, news reports have suggested that tensions over the fate of Raymond Davis threatened trilateral meetings scheduled for later this month, but this assertion too has been denied by the US government.
Beale also said that there was no change of plan in President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to the US, and nor was President Obama planning to cancel his trip to Pakistan. The spokesperson said that the US embassy and consulates will continue work as per usual in Pakistan.
We wrote on Wednesday that “Both nations’ needs deserve respect and attention, and the only path to a solution that satisfies both nations is open and constructive dialogue.” In order to facilitate such a dialogue, we need the press to cut through the rumor and speculation that clouds public perception about international relations.
1 See: Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. 157-159.