The Media Today

A depressing vacuum in Afghanistan coverage, as Kabul falls

August 16, 2021

Yesterday, after weeks of rapid advance as US forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban took Kabul, the capital. Ashraf Ghani, the president, fled the country; the US relocated its embassy staff to the airport for evacuation; thousands of civilians crowded there, too, in the desperate hope of also boarding a plane. US troops fired in the air to disperse the crowds; according to Reuters, at least five people have died at the airport; according to the Wall Street Journal, at least three people were shot; the story is developing. Images obtained by Al Jazeera showing Taliban officials inside the presidential palace circulated widely in the media. So did images captured by the Associated Press showing an American helicopter buzzing over the US embassy. Often, the latter images came packaged with comparisons to the pictures that became synonymous with the US retreat from Saigon, at the end of the Vietnam war. Some such commentary thoughtfully teased out the echoes of imperial folly and the many differences between then and now. Much of it trafficked in optics-driven, America-centric gotcha journalism—sensationalizing a cheap visual parallel and feasting off of President Biden’s recent assurance that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy.”

Some of yesterday’s coverage felt untethered even from the more recent, isolated history of the US-led war in Afghanistan. Pundits widely blamed Biden for the country’s swift fall back into Taliban hands: Chuck Todd predicted, at the top of Meet the Press, that “the collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban is likely to haunt Mr. Biden’s legacy”; in a newsletter headlined “Biden’s stain,” Mike Allen, of Axios, called the collapse an “embarrassment” for the president. The circumstances of the US withdrawal, of course, merit extremely sharp scrutiny. But—when it comes to the prosecution of the war, and the years of official lies told in its service—there is an awful lot of blame to go around, stretching right back to the Bush administration, which started it. Remarkably, the word “Bush” was not mentioned once on any of the Sunday shows yesterday—an omission that was perhaps most glaring on ABC’s This Week, where Jonathan Karl interviewed Liz Cheney almost as a pundit, and not as the scion of Bush’s vice president who herself took a top State Department post in the early part of the war. Obama was scarcely mentioned either; there was some discussion as to whether Trump should own some of the blame for the pullout strategy, but that was often as far back as things went.

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As Liam Stack, a reporter at the New York Times, put it yesterday, “the entire US governing class is implicated in this… every official or DC think tanker or cable news talking head you see on TV today.” The list of the complicit includes sections of the press, and yet the dominant tone in much mainstream commentary and coverage yesterday was not one of humble self-reflection, but rather high-pitched, almost ex-nihilo indignation and shock. As numerous observers have noted, many major news organizations lost interest in the war—at least as a major story—as it became a quagmire, and have only returned to it recently with the endgame in sight. “Ask yourself how often Afghanistan has been a lead story for the last twenty years. And then ask yourself if it will be in a week,” Oliver Willis, a progressive journalist, tweeted. “American media is putrid at covering the world and it directly leads to a public constantly surprised by topics and issues.” In addition to sins of omission, media watchers highlighted sins of commission, seeing a clear pro-war slant in some of the coverage. Part of the problem here, surely, is the common media fallacy that it’s a story when new bad things happen, whereas the status quo just exists.

Not that blame should be the priority in coverage right now—that should be the Afghan people endangered by the Taliban surge. Many reporters have worked to center their plight, but much associated punditry has treated their country’s collapse as primarily a story about US domestic politics. At the top of This Week, Karl cited the US death toll in Afghanistan without saying how many lives the war has claimed overall. Afghan voices have been present, certainly, but sometimes secondary; Ussama Makdisi, a history professor at Rice University, took the New York Times to task for failing to quote any in a news-analysis piece focused on “US miscalculations.” Afghan reporters are covering the story in the face of grave personal danger; some of their coverage has reached US audiences, but American networks, in particular, have often privileged discussions with US-based politicians and analysts, and dispatches from big-name foreign correspondents who have flown into Kabul to cover its collapse.

Not that there are always easy solutions here, necessarily: as CNN’s Clarissa Ward noted from Kabul yesterday, there’s no indication yet that Western journalists are in anything like as much danger as their Afghan counterparts. The Afghan journalists, and everyone else in immediate danger, deserve our immediate empathy and focus; we can also usefully help them hold the Biden administration to account—by scrutinizing the (questionable) effectiveness of the visa programs it instituted for Afghans who worked with US officials, NGOs, and news outlets; by asking what, if anything, it plans to do to help those who don’t qualify; by reminding readers, as the journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian put it yesterday, that visas and processing times aren’t immutable facts of nature but a political choice. Reducing coverage to embassy-helicopter photos isn’t just a cliché. It implicitly orients the story around those with the power to leave.

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Below, more on Afghanistan:

  • The press-freedom threat, I: As I wrote recently in this newsletter, the Taliban’s advance had already begun to devastate press freedom in Afghanistan before fighters got close to Kabul; now they control the country, journalists on the ground face a mortal threat, with reports already filtering through of Taliban militants raiding the homes of women reporters, in particular. Yesterday, Ben Smith reported, for the Times, that Kabul-based staffers for US government-owned broadcasters, including Radio Azadi and Voice of America, are stuck in the city and fear reprisals from the Taliban. Officials at the US Agency for Global Media say they are “doing everything in their power” to help.
  • The press-freedom threat, II: While the Biden administration announced recently that it would create a special visa program for Afghans who worked for US-based news outlets and NGOs, it said that those eligible would have to leave Afghanistan for a third country and apply for the visa from there—an already-onerous requirement that now looks even tougher. On Friday, officials in neighboring Pakistan made things a little easier, announcing a relaxation of visa rules for staffers of international media outlets in Afghanistan who plan to leave the country via Pakistani territory. The British government also recently made visa commitments to some Afghan media workers. Yesterday, a group of German news organizations urged their country’s government to follow suit.
  • The broader context, I: On Friday, Spencer Ackerman wrote in Forever Wars, a Substack newsletter that he recently launched, that we shouldn’t think of the Taliban’s victory as a departure from America’s war, but rather a continuation of it. “When the US withdraws from a war, the ensuing suffering of innocent people becomes, to the ‘national security’ community, an argument for re-escalation,” Ackerman writes. “It is far easier to consider the bloodletting that follows the US presence to be merely the result of its absence. But to take that position is to wash the blood from American hands that waged the war, all the while claiming that the retreat is the contemptible hand-washing.”
  • The broader context, II: On a recent episode of How We Got Here, a new podcast hosted by professors at Columbia Journalism School, Sheila Coronel spoke with the  scholars Daniel Immerwahr and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez about the echoes of US empire in today’s news, including in Afghanistan. “The United States is currently running drones, and occasionally doing airstrikes throughout the world,” Immerwahr said. “At a time when we are considering police violence of the United States, that kind of overseas thing, if it happens in Afghanistan, stays in Afghanistan. That’s basically just been given a pass by reporters for the most part.”

Other notable stories:

  • For BuzzFeed, Dean Sterling Jones reports that David Mikkelson, the cofounder of Snopes, a fact-checking website, plagiarized more than fifty articles from other news organizations under both his own name and the fake byline “Jeff Zarronandia”—a persona Mikkelson invented as a “kind of stress-relief thing” to mislead online trolls. Mikkelson apologized and attributed his behavior to his lack of a “journalism background.” Snopes suspended Mikkelson from his editorial role pending an investigation; he remains a fifty-percent shareholder and officer of the company.
  • Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein visited Montclair, New Jersey, where “a large swath of the New York Times is working from home and the local paper’s advisory board resembles ‘the Pulitzer committee,’” as one resident told Klein. “Montclair seems disproportionately on the radar of Manhattan media outlets,” Klein writes. “Though many news outlets are represented in Montclair, including by one of my Vanity Fair colleagues, the Times could establish a sizable bureau within the town limits.” Many TV people live there, too.
  • Ariadna Jacob, a talent agent who has represented influencers on TikTok, is suing Taylor Lorenz, a tech reporter at the Times, for defamation. Jacob claims that an article by Lorenz, which detailed allegations that Jacob mistreated her clients, contained “numerous false and disparaging statements”; the Times said that Jacob is trying “to silence those who criticize her business practices.” The Wrap’s Antoinette Siu has more.
  • On the Working People podcast, Jacob Morrison, of the Valley Labor Report, spoke with Kim Kelly, an independent reporter, about coverage of a coal-miner strike in Alabama. “The mainstream media has barely made a peep about the strike,” Maximillian Alvarez, the podcast’s host, writes. “Instead, a small collection of independent journalists and local and progressive media outlets have been working overtime” to cover the story.
  • Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the District of Columbia and eight police officers on behalf of Oyoma Asinor and Bryan Dozier, two photojournalists who say that police used chemical irritants and stun grenades against them last August, even though the DC council had banned them a month earlier. Asinor also says that he was arrested without probable cause and detained overnight. CNN’s Whitney Wild has more.
  • In Boston, GBH News canceled Beat the Press, a TV show about the media industry that Emily Rooney, a local journalist, had hosted for twenty-two years. GBH said that it wants to focus its resources on “audience-centered local stories” and “the critical issues of education, social justice, Covid/public health, and politics.” Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor and regular Beat the Press panelist, wrote about the cancellation on his blog.
  • Vauhini Vara, a writer and journalist, used an artificial-intelligence program that turns users’ prompts into realistic, human-like text to help her write about her sister’s death, something that Vara had long avoided doing. Initially, “the AI matched my canned language; clichés abounded,” Vara writes. “But as I tried to write more honestly, the AI seemed to be doing the same.” The Believer published the resulting text.
  • And Larry Heinzerling—a veteran of the Associated Press who served as its bureau chief in South Africa and West Germany, and played a key role in freeing his colleague Terry Anderson from captivity in Lebanon—has died. He was seventy five. “Larry epitomized the enduring values of honor, trust, grace under pressure, and talent,” Lou Boccardi, a former AP president, said. “He was a joy to have in the AP family.”

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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.