Crossed Wires? How the media in the U.S. and Pakistan are fraying an already rocky relationship.

When U.S. Navy Seals slipped through the dark into Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound one year ago, the killing of America’s most wanted man on Pakistani soil set off a tidal wave of media coverage in both countries that helped shape public opinion and complicated already frayed relations between Washington and Islamabad

The killing of Osama bin Laden became a media moment in both countries, though one with sharply differing narratives.

U.S. media coverage featured triumphant fist pumping outside the White House, recreations of how the Navy Seals found their target, and TV commentators – especially those on the right of the political spectrum – exulting over bin Laden’s death.

In Pakistan, the surprise raid – carried out with no advance warning to the Pakistani government – was announced with little fanfare or comment. Pakistan’s president made no official statement, and the public spaces in Pakistan’s major cities remained largely empty.

Within days, the story began to evolve in both countries. In the U.S. media, a central question emerged: how could bin Laden have lived in Pakistan for so long without at least tacit knowledge of the country’s authorities? Implicit in this question: Is Pakistan a reliable partner for the U.S.?

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s feisty, independent TV talk shows moved on from the “who knew bin Laden was here?” question to another inquiry: how could American military personnel so easily slip undetected into Pakistani territory? In this storyline, the crucial point became: the American raid had violated Pakistani sovereignty.

“I think in all societies there’s this tendency to try and find enemies, the bad guys,” says David Rohde, a former New York Times correspondent who shared in the paper’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the Osama bin Laden coverage, that tendency meant “the U.S. wants to blame all Pakistan as ‘secretly they’re against us’,’’ said Rohde. “And in Pakistan, they see [that] the U.S. is just this kind of venomous, terrible global superpower.”

“The media’s role should be to play against those tendencies,” Rohde says, “but unfortunately some of the media plays into it.”

In the year since that Abbottabad raid, the news from Pakistan has given media in both countries plenty of opportunities to reinforce those dueling perceptions. Controversial U.S.-led NATO drone attacks continued to pick off alleged militants on Pakistani soil, sometimes claiming civilian victims as well, and last November, 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed in one such raid – more signs of U.S. callousness and cavalier views on sovereignty, according to Pakistani media.

For the US, which gives Pakistan around $1 billion a year in aid, events of the past year have compounded the idea that its South Asian partner’s house is not in order, further fraying the edges of the diplomatic relationship between the two sides.

In April, when Taliban militants raided a prison in northwestern Pakistan, freeing almost 400 inmates, coverage in U.S. media was widespread. Although the reporting remained largely free of an editorial tone, many of the stories compounded a sense that Pakistan’s authorities had let another security nightmare slip into its field of play. The incident gained coverage on Pakistani television, too, but was not, in most cases the lead story.

“I think they’re talking past each other, I think that’s been the real problem,” says Ahmed Rashid, one of Pakistan’s most prominent author-journalists, about the portrayal of the United States in Pakistani media, and Pakistan in American news coverage.

Media coverage in both countries has been too eager to assign blame, says Rashid. In the case of the 24 Pakistani soldiers killed last November, he said, “Who was right, who was wrong, was not really relevant to the issue of maintaining relations between the two states.”

But, says Rashid, Pakistani demands for an apology (which was never issued) were not unreasonable. “If 24 Americans had been killed, certainly Pakistan would not have been let off the hook without some kind of apology,” says Rashid. “I think the Americans were particularly insensitive about that issue.”

“But Pakistan has also shown a lot of insensitivity,” adds Rashid, “for example regarding this whole bin Laden question.”

Tarek Fatah, a former television reporter in Pakistan and founder of the Canadian Muslim Congress, describes coverage of Pakistan in right-leaning U.S. media as “tinged with a little bit of nastiness.”

An example: On April 14th, a Fox News story about wrangling over U.S.-Pakistani relations suggested a defiant tone with its headline, “The US has no intention of ending drone strikes in Pakistan.” Other stories on Fox, though often taken from news wires, tend to portray Pakistan as a country in chaos, unable to keep control of its own affairs, let alone aid in the security of U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

“It’s an easy way to get viewers and readers,” says David Rohde, of the preconceptions that appear in the news media of both countries, “to spread these conspiracy theories about ‘all the Pakistanis are bad’ or ‘all the Americans are ba’.”

The portrayal of Pakistan in the U.S. media might be unflattering, but in most of the mainstream media, says Tarek Fatah, the picture “is fairly accurate.”

Rohde agrees, particularly in U.S. media with correspondents in Pakistan who “actually see events from the perspectives of the people.” Although American journalists tend to arrive in Pakistan with preconceptions, “when they spend time in the country, they see that it’s very different.”

But with news budgets tightening, and foreign bureaus closing, the nuance that American news outlets are in a position to report now is under threat, “It’s a shrinking thing, foreign correspondents in the U.S. media, particularly in television,” says Rohde, who now writes for Thompson Reuters.

“It was kind of a sad statement that the American television coverage was so American focused,” Rohde adds, referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. “That’s a result of having all of your resources inside the United States. It’s a real problem in general in the American media.”


Timeline: U.S.-Pakistani relations:

In the year since a covert U.S. operation invaded Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan, relations between the United States and Pakistan have plummeted. Nearly every month seems to bring a new crisis: the jailing of a CIA contractor on murder charges in Pakistan; U.S. accusations that Pakistan backed a militant attack on the American Embassy in Kabul; the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO attack. And always in the background are the U.S. drone strikes on militants in Pakistan, which have been a constant irritant for Islamabad over the past few years.

Analysts say relations between the two countries have never been worse in the 65 years since the inception of Pakistan. This timeline charts the ups and downs in U.S.-Pakistan relations.

1947: Pakistan is partitioned out of India. Two months later the U.S. establishes diplomatic relations with the new country.

1951: Pakistan’s first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan visits Washington, instead of the world’s other superpower, the USSR. The visit underscores Khan’s pro-Western and pro-American policies. In the wake of the visit, the U.S. gives Pakistan nearly $50 million in grants and $19 million in defense assistance between 1955 and 1965.

1971: Civil War breaks out between East and West Pakistan. With the help of India, Bangladesh is made an independent state. The U.S. suspends military aid, causing resentment within Pakistan.

1979: The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. The U.S. and Pakistan are united under a common interest to oppose Soviet influence in the region. With U.S. assistance, in the largest covert operation in history, Pakistan arms and supplies anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan. While the U.S. military aid was intended for efforts against the Soviets, Pakistan used it to build an arsenal against India—thereby illustrating the roots of divergent interests of the two countries. Eventually the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988.

1981: Pakistan becomes key transit country for supplying arms and ammunition to the Mujahedeen; Reagan administration negotiates a five-year, $3.2 billion economic and military aid package with Islamabad.

1990: U.S. suspends aid to Pakistan under the Pressler Amendment, which requires that the U.S. ensure Pakistan is nuclear-weapons free; Bush administration cuts all military funds and most economic assistance.

1998: Pakistan tests nuclear weapons; the U.S. responds with sanctions restricting military sales, economic assistance and loans to Pakistan.

1999: The Pakistani government of Nawaz Sharif is overthrown in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf. The U.S. responds with more sanctions.

2001: After 9/11, under pressure from the U.S., Pakistan cuts its diplomatic ties with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Pakistan joins the “War on Terror” as a U.S. ally, and provides the U.S. a military airports and bases for its attack on Afghanistan. In response, the U.S. lifts sanctions imposed during the 1990s and forgives more than $1 billion of Pakistani debt.

2004: A.Q. Khan confesses to sale of nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Libya and Iran; while the news was disturbing to the U.S., it avoids applying sanctions as Khan enjoyed enormous popularity in Pakistan and to do so would risk losing Musharraf as an ally in the “War against Terror.” Later that year, President George W. Bush upgrades relations with Pakistan, designating it a major non-NATO ally.

2007: U.S. attempts to broker a power deal between Musharraf, whose popularity has plummeted and Benazir Bhutto who has returned under an amnesty deal. Later that year, Bhutto is assassinated; riots break out across the country.

2008: The coalition of parties opposed to Musharraf wins the election and calls for a reevaluation of cooperation with U.S. in counterterrorism effort.

2009: Newly elected President Barack Obama shifts focus from the U.S. war in Iraq to the war in Afghanistan and unveils Af-Pak strategy, linking stability in Afghanistan to effective action against militants in Pakistan. Non-military aid to Pakistan is tripled in the form of a $7.5 billion aid package for next five years.

2010: Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad attempts to carry out a car bomb plot in New York City’s Times Square. The Pakistani Taliban claims responsibility. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issues a stern warning that “severe consequences” will ensue if there are links traced back to Pakistan.

May 2011: Relations deteriorate quickly following the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. Prior to the raid, over 75 percent of Pakistanis surveyed by Pew Research Center held an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. Most Pakistanis disapprove of the U.S. military operation that killed bin Laden, and a majority of Pakistanis describe his death as a bad thing.

November 2011: Bilateral relations are further damaged following the attack by NATO helicopters on November 26, 2011, which results in the deaths of 24 security personnel in Salala, located on the Af-Pak border. Two days later, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani warns the U.S. that ‘business as usual will not be there’ now. U.S. diplomatic efforts to persuade Pakistan to reopen NATO supply lines to the Afghan front are blocked by rising anti-Americanism in media, in public opinion, and among Pakistani lawmakers, who fear that to support such a decision risks branding them as friends of Washington. In this stalemate, the U.S. remains the largest contributor of economic aid to Pakistan; the country is still of vital strategic important to the U.S., given its proximity to key countries – including Afghanistan, where the U.S. military’s combat presence is shrinking but will remain until 2014.


Story by Tomos Lewis

Timeline by Sumit Galhotra

Video by Sarah Alvi and Celeste Owen-Jones


Tomos Lewis is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@stopclock83)

Sumit Galhotra is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@SumitAndTheCity)

Céleste Owen-Jones is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@CelesteOJ).

Sarah Alvi is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@sarah_alvi).