CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata apologized Saturday for suggesting the war in Ukraine is particularly shocking because the country is “relatively civilized” and “European” compared to Iraq and Afghanistan.
D’Agata’s characterization was among a flurry of similar commentary in the media that critics have slammed as racist and, in some cases, historically inaccurate.
While reporting from Kyiv on Friday, a day after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, D’Agata said of the latter country, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.”
“This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen,” he said.
A clip of the moment drew millions of views and condemnation from many people, including historians and journalism organizations.
“As someone who has lived through wars and invasions with the world watching, I deeply empathize with the Ukrainian people. The deeply racist coverage has been very telling as well,” Mostafa Minawi, an associate professor of history at Cornell University, wrote on Twitter. “I wonder what would lead someone like [D’Agata] to think it is ok to compare the value of peoples’ lives and who qualifies as ‘civilized.’”
Nader Issa, a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, tweeted, “If that’s the version where he chooses his words carefully, was the alternative just going to be ‘these are civilized white people and not uncivilized brown people.’”
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) released a statement in response to coverage of the Ukraine crisis, citing D’Agata’s remarks as one of several examples of “racist news coverage that ascribes more importance to some victims of war over others.”
AMEJA called on all news organizations to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of the war.
D’Agata responded to the criticism during a Saturday report, saying, “I spoke in a way that I regret, and for that I’m sorry.” He said what he’d been trying to convey was that Ukraine had not seen war on this scale in recent years, compared to conflicts he’d covered in other parts of the world.
Several other journalists and public figures have been called out for similarly troubling analyses.
David Sakvarelidze, the former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, said in a BBC interview that “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” by Russia’s assault. The BBC journalist interviewing him did not challenge the comment.
Daniel Hannan, a British journalist and former pro-Brexit politician, wrote in The Telegraph, “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”
And Al Jazeera English anchor Peter Dobbie said it was “compelling” that the refugees appeared to be “middle-class people.”
“These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa,” he said. “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
In addition to accusations of racism, several critics called out the inaccurate implication that this type of conflict has been limited to countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in recent history, pointing to wars in Europe in the 1990s.
Al Jazeera later apologized for its presenter’s comments, calling them unfair, insensitive and irresponsible. It added that the “breach of professionalism is being dealt with.”
The BBC and The Telegraph did not immediately return requests for comment.
In its statement, AMEJA warned newsrooms not to make comparisons that “weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another.”
“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America,” the group said. “It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected.”