The recent incidents of two leading American TV personalities claiming to have covered specific events, when they had not, only come across as yet more nails in the journalistic coffins of those still seeking to do real reporting. As writer Edward Girardet maintains, the truth-fudging of disgraced NBC anchor Brian Williams that he had been travelling in a US military helicopter when hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the 2003 Gulf War, or claims by Fox TV talk show host Bill O’Reilly that he had been covering a ‘war zone’ during the 1982 Falklands conflict, when it was actually a riot in Buenos Aires, are nothing new.
Whether for reasons of self-glory, laziness or poor memories, some journalists have consistently sought to take short cuts to come up with the ‘right’ reporting. Some, too, have been supported by their news organizations in a manner that seriously questions the credibility of select mainstream media. One lingering story that has yet to be clarified is the use of fabricated footage during the 1980s by American film-maker Mike Hoover for CBS News, which, despite well-researched investigative reports, the US television network still denies.
During the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, a small group of dedicated and courageous British, American, French and other Western and Afghan cameramen made repeated clandestine reporting trips into Afghanistan in search of war footage. Some of them travelled for weeks, even months on end, often risking their lives. However, unlike the Vietnam War nearly two decades earlier, where so-called ‘bang-bang’ coverage was almost guaranteed with every sortie into the field, Afghanistan proved a different war.
To reach the battle zones, you had to walk hundreds of miles, and by the time you got there, it was usually too late. Most footage tended to be of distant helicopter or MIG bombings, or the occasional daylight attack by the mujahideen – as the Afghan guerrillas were called – of a Soviet convoy. Many assaults were nocturnal with little to see other than flashes and tracers streaking across the night sky. Even attempts to obtain much sought-after footage of resistance fighters firing Stinger missiles proved frustratingly difficult. And to film a mortar or rocket explosion centre-camera, unless you had your camera running at the right time and place, was virtually impossible.
The end result was that few cameramen – and photographers – returned with the ‘right’ footage. This annoyed the American television networks no end. The BBC, ITV and other European broadcasters were a bit more patient – and understanding, offering TV reports and documentaries that were a bit more in depth and less gung-ho. What the Americans wanted, however, was Vietnam-style coverage and they were not getting it from Afghanistan. One could run only so much imagery of destitute refugees fleeing across the mountains, guerrillas showing off their weapons in front of shattered Soviet tanks, or villages bombed days or weeks earlier by Red Army forces.
For us writers, it was far easier. We could witness Soviet-Afghan assaults from the mountain tops, interview commanders, or talk with pathetic villagers about what happened to their families and homes. We would always come out with a story. Many news cameramen were freelancers, who were simply not paid if they could not come out with the appropriate, dramatic footage.
The other option, of course, was to stage it. This is precisely what Mike Hoover, an Academy Award-winner American film-maker better known for his outdoor and mountaineering documentaries, allegedly did. Dispatched to Afghanistan by CBS on no fewer than 18 occasions, according to the network, Hoover had it all. Centre-camera shots of incoming mortar explosions, back views and front views of guerrillas attacking, MIGs screaming across the skies to bomb an Afghan village, or a mujahed carefully crawling across a ‘minefield’ to gingerly dig up and remove a landmine.
Both experienced journalists, including this writer, plus military experts, such as David Isby, a renowned security expert from Washington, DC, familiar with Afghanistan and the Pakistani border areas well, closely examined the footage. Various disturbing problems emerged.
First, there were far too many neatly-framed centre camera shots of supposed Soviet mortar or artillery explosions as if part of a Hollywood film, or carefully re-enacted historical documentary. As anyone who reported Afghanistan during those days knows only too well, this sort of thing just did not happen during the Afghan war. According to the military experts as well as two British cameramen with military backgrounds, notably Peter Jouvenal and Ken Guest, the explosions were from fixed ground charges, not incoming shells.
Second, the manner with which Hoover filmed the mujahideen ‘attacking’ was evidently staged with dramatic shots from in front and behind. The terrain also looked remarkably similar to a well-known military training camp operated by one of the moderate resistance parties inside Pakistan. It was the place many western journalists went when they could not undertake long journeys inside Afghanistan. Furthermore, the footage of the guerrilla removing a landmine showed that the detonator had been previously removed, and hence represented no danger.
And finally, the purported MIG-21 was a Chinese-built plane with Pakistani markings. Colonel Safi, an Afghan guerrilla commander who had ‘hosted’ Hoover, later admitted that much of it was staged. The same claims were made by Afghans who had worked with Hoover. All this information was shared with CBS, including nightly news anchor and managing editor, Dan Rather, who had been using Hoover’s footage,
Some of Hoover’s filming was aired by CBS as part of its regular news coverage from 1984 onwards. In July, 1987, Rather presented a documentary, “The Battle for Afghanistan,” that included previously broadcast content. According to CBS at the time, the footage represented the 18 trips that Hoover and his crew had made into Afghanistan over three years.
Concerns voiced to Dan Rather and later David Burke, President of CBS, by print and other TV journalists that much of this content was fake or otherwise staged, were ignored. Hoover, CBS maintained, was “well-regarded” by the network. Burke further argued that the “goal of CBS News in every instance is to gather and report the news accurately, fairly and with integrity. In the case of the Afghan war, we believe we have done so.”
When Wall Street Journal correspondent Mary Williams Walsh tried to break the story with a well-documented article about Hoover’s fabrications, her paper refused to run it following consultations with CBS. Walsh resigned. As a result, the first story by Janet Wilson appeared in the New York Post in late 1989, which also quoted sources including an Afghan guerrilla who had served as Hoover’s translator as well as a highly respected Afghan-British cameraman, who served as Hoover’s second, but normally worked for the BBC, ITN and other UK-based networks. Walsh finally managed to place a watered-down version in the Columbia Journalism Review in 1990.
The allegations were also reported by other newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times and Toronto Globe and Mail, plus openly discussed on various public radio stations. Both CBS and Hoover have steadfastly denied the New York Post assertions, but, with pressure growing, Burke issued a gag-order in late 1989 on all his company’s employees not to discuss the case. He announced further that CBS would undertake its own investigation. This later determined that the footage was authentic. Hoover eventually admitted that the MIG was a case of mistaken identity, but countered all the other allegations as ‘rubbish’.
In 1990, Erwin Knoll published Journalistic Jihad: Holes in the Coverage of a Holy War a more complete analysis of the Walsh story and the manner with which CBS sought to refute the allegations. Since then, various European and American journalists and writers have explored the claims against Hoover, but the story has been more or less swept under the carpet. However, it is often used as an example at universities and journalism schools as a way reporting can be distorted.
Maybe now that various misrepresentation incidents have to come to the fore, such as the Williams and O’Reilly fudging, there might be a greater willingness to call the mainstream media to task.
Hoover, who first became involved with commercial filming by training Clint Eastwood in climbing for the movie, The Eiger Sanction, in 1975, admitted, sort of, in an interview to the Los Angeles Times, that he was really a ‘film-maker’ and did not consider himself a ‘news cameraman’ in the traditional sense. Whether he was referring to his staging of events is not clear. In a conversation with Dan Rather at a 1996 Columbia University reporting workshop, this writer asked about Hoover. Rather suggested somewhat ruefully that he had possibly made a “mistake” in his use of Hoover’s footage, but that it was difficult to determine what had really happened. He then quickly changed the subject.
During the Taliban period, Hoover returned to Afghanistan to film and later again during the 2000s. According to Robert Schuster, Hoover’s attorney, the film-maker is currently involved in another Afghan venture, notably a project titled, Afghanistan: The Last Fun War with Rather for HBO. Hoover is also regularly solicited to talk about his work and adventures.
The irony is that Hoover has been nominated three times for an Academy Award and has received fourteen Emmy Awards for documentaries (including three for hard news), eleven Golden Eagle documentary awards, and the SPJ News Award for best television spot news coverage. Together with Rather, Hoover was the winner of the Columbia-DuPont Journalism Award for their Afghanistan coverage. The award organizers, it appears, have never sought to launch their own investigation into the matter despite the allegations by so many reputable journalists and other observers.
The real tragedy for modern-day American journalism, however, is the realization that these standing accusations have never been addressed properly by CBS, Rather or Hoover. Maybe a detailed and public reviewing of the footage with experienced observers, who know both Afghanistan and military capabilities, might finally put the matter to rest.
As a writer who believes in the need to support quality journalism, particularly at a time when standards and international coverage are dropping, what is deplorable is that Hoover may have achieved some of this glory based on false footage. At the same time, many of those cameramen who have worked so hard to accomplish real reporting have gone unrecognized, or returned with nothing because real war reporting is not always about well-framed, Hollywood shots of exploding shells or heroic-looking guerrillas moving into ‘battle’ shot at different angles. It’s a lot rougher than that.
Edward Girardet, who reported Afghanistan for The Christian Science Monitor and other media, has written about the Hoover incident in his latest book: Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. Girardet has also reported for the PBS NewsHour together with reputable cameramen and producers such as Peter Jouvenal, Tom Woods, Tim Weaver and Habib Hayakani.