As Afghanistan starves, the pundit class turns away

In recent weeks, a number of journalists at major outlets have voiced their alarm about the economic catastrophe that’s unfolding in Afghanistan in the wake of the US withdrawal from the country and its takeover by the Taliban. Last month, Christina Goldbaum, a Kabul-based correspondent for the New York Times, went on the paper’s Daily podcast and outlined how banks are running out of cash and severely malnourished children are overwhelming healthcare facilities. “I’ve covered severe droughts, I’ve covered countries on the brink of famine,” Goldbaum said. “But I had never seen a crisis like this.” Reporting from Afghanistan for The New Yorker, Jane Ferguson described the situation as “the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”; Saeed Shah reported for the Wall Street Journal that some parents are selling their children to survive. CBS, PBS, The Guardian, and the Washington Post have all also run dispatches from the ground. In the US, The Intercept’s Lee Fang has filed several stories on the role crippling US sanctions have played in exacerbating the crisis, including a video in which he cornered several uninterested-looking senators. On his prime-time MSNBC show last week, Chris Hayes decried the Biden administration’s current stance on sanctions as “an indefensible moral scandal.”

This is far from an exhaustive summary of such coverage. But here’s what you won’t have seen (or, at least, what I haven’t seen). You won’t have seen cable anchors lining up night after night to collectively excoriate Biden for helping to starve Afghan children. (Even Hayes’s segment on the matter was relatively brief.) You won’t have seen veteran foreign correspondents speechifying endlessly on air as to how Biden’s inaction has diminished the trust that overseas capitals place in America’s word on the world stage. You won’t have seen many political pundits describing Biden’s callous disregard for Afghan lives as the sort of thing Trump would have done. You won’t have seen retired four-star generals and former Defense and State department staffers—many of them with undisclosed, ongoing financial ties to the military-industrial complex—touring TV studios to bemoan Biden’s poor judgment. You won’t have seen a single reporter ask Biden a question about Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis at his rare press conference this week, even though he took questions for a hundred and eleven minutes.

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All of this, of course, is in stark contrast to last summer, when the pullout from Afghanistan sparked a weeks-long media feeding frenzy and rampant condemnation of Biden among the pundit class. The consequences of American occupation and withdrawal have since only intensified. The same cannot be said of the attention American media is paying to them.

Media critics are wont to say that an important story—especially when it’s a humanitarian crisis abroad—isn’t being covered by Western media. This is rarely literally true; it certainly isn’t true of this humanitarian crisis. Such critics generally mean, rather, to highlight a story’s lack of prominence relative to its importance; to say that something deserves to be a really big deal across the news cycle. Defining what this might look like can be tricky. This time, the withdrawal coverage over the summer gives us a direct and immediate point of comparison. Back then, critics of the frenzied coverage (myself included) argued that it seemed to reflect a pervasive media bias in favor of US intervention overseas—a long-term trend of playing up storylines that cast it as a stabilizing force while playing down stories of its destructiveness. The purveyors of the frenzied coverage often hit back that they were genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of the Afghan people. You can make your own mind up, now, as to who was telling the truth.

Making his mind up, Ryan Cooper, of The Week, wrote in November that the disparity between the coverage of the withdrawal and the coverage of the humanitarian crisis “overwhelmingly suggests all the maudlin weeping about Afghan civilians was a sham”; since then, a number of other commentators—including Adam Johnson, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic, and The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain—have made similar observations. Cooper looked at Google trends in the US and found that searches for “Afghanistan” had massively collapsed from their August peak; search for the prominence of the topic on cable news, and you’ll see a strikingly similar loss of interest. According to the Tyndall Report, between October and December of last year, the nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC collectively devoted just twenty-one minutes to coverage of Afghanistan, down from 427 minutes in August and September. Julie Hollar, of the media watchdog FAIR, found that when US networks did mention the humanitarian crisis, they rarely assessed America’s responsibility for it. (Biden has applied sanctions exemptions for aid and donated funds directly, but neither is enough to quell the suffering. As well as the sanctions, Taliban-enforced population displacement and severe drought have been important drivers of the crisis. It’s fair to say that US culpability for climate change, which is making Afghanistan’s droughts worse, has largely been missing from the American media conversation, too.)

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Who is to blame for the disparity between the summer and now? Not the reporters who are still on the ground in Afghanistan, clearly, nor the critics back home who are paying attention to the crisis. Fault lies, rather, with the nebulous blob of news leaders who collectively decide which stories drive the day in agenda-setting morning newsletters or snag the top spot on the evening news; which stories are not just worthy of an article, but of real focus and consistent amplification. It lies, too, with politicians who could help make this a bigger story, but (as Fang showed) often seem not to want to. Taken together, the fault is with an information ecosystem that too rarely follows through with proper accountability for consequential political failures; that sees accountability more in terms of short-term “gaffes” than sustained, morally-sharp scrutiny of the messes America leaves behind. As Johnson put it, “the relevant moral criteria” in Afghanistan coverage apparently is not “‘what’s good for the Afghan people.’ It’s, ‘what’s good for US strategic interests.’”

In the wake of the withdrawal, the worsening Taliban crackdown on press freedom in Afghanistan was among a number of storylines to spark concern in US media, including in this newsletter. In the months since then, that situation, too, has only gotten worse: last month, Reporters Without Borders and the Afghan Independent Journalists Association calculated that more than forty percent of news outlets have closed since August, with more than six thousand journalists losing their jobs as a result, including the vast majority of women reporters working in the country. Afghan media workers continue to face the threat of physical violence. They have also, inevitably, been hammered by the economic crisis. Struggling businesses can’t afford to pay for media advertising; foreign aid funding for newsrooms has run short. Stories have filtered out of journalists having to sell bread or their own clothes on the street to survive.

As the Taliban took over, an Afghan journalist based in Kabul reached out to tell me about his situation: the newspaper where he worked had shut down and he felt too afraid to leave his house. (I’m not naming him for security reasons.) This week, I reached out to him again to check in. He told me that he is still unemployed and trying to stay mostly at home, and that he is struggling to pay rent and other expenses. The economic collapse “is affecting the life of every ordinary person in Afghanistan and I am one of them,” he told me. “This crisis is bigger than what is reflected in the international media and than what the politicians are saying and doing.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: A man disributes bread to Burka-wearing Afghan women outside a bakery in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Dec, 2, 2021. According to U.N. figures from early November, almost 24 million people in Afghanistan, around 60% percent of the population, suffer from acute hunger, including 8.7 million living in near famine. Increasing numbers of malnourished children have filled hospital wards.(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)