The Media Today

What comes next for Afghan journalism and journalism on Afghanistan

August 31, 2021

Yesterday around 4.30, CNN’s Jake Tapper cut short an interview with LaToya Cantrell, the mayor of New Orleans, about the hurricane that just ravaged her city, and threw to the Pentagon, where General Kenneth McKenzie, of US Central Command, announced that American forces had completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. “So, that is some breaking news for you,” Tapper said, when he came back on air. “The war in Afghanistan is over.” Online, national-security correspondents, political reporters, and pundits projected a similar finality; so, too, did banner headlines. (The New York Times: “AMERICA’S LONGEST WAR ENDS AS LAST TROOPS LEAVE AFGHANISTAN.”) Some commentators, however, took issue with that framing. Voices on the right made the case that the war isn’t over; America just chose to stop fighting it. Others emphasized the ongoing costs for the Afghans left behind.

As I’ve written repeatedly in this newsletter, Afghan journalists face a dark future. The Taliban’s takeover has silenced, threatened, and even killed reporters, with women at particular risk; journalists quit or fled for Kabul; when that city fell, many media workers tried to get out of the country, some successfully, others not. Two weeks ago, Taliban leaders claimed, as part of a broader PR campaign, that they would be gentler than they’d been in the past, and respect press freedoms as long as they don’t contradict “Islamic values” or “national unity”; a Taliban spokesman sat for an interview with Beheshta Arghand, a female anchor on TOLOnews, Afghanistan’s biggest private network. But the reality belies the rhetoric. Taliban officials have banned women from working for state TV; there have been reports of physical attacks on both Afghan and foreign reporters, as well as raids on journalists’ homes. Last week, militants beat up Ziar Khan Yaad, of TOLOnews, while he was reporting in Kabul; they confiscated his phone and asked friends who called it to provide Yaad’s home address. Fighters also searched the home of ​​Zalmay Latifi, the director of Enikass Radio and TV, and seized cars, weapons, and computers. Latifi wasn’t present for the raid—he’d already gone into hiding. Arghand left Afghanistan just days after her interview. She told CNN’s Brian Stelter: “Like millions of people, I fear the Taliban.”

New: CJR looks back at its coverage of race over six decades

Saad Mohseni, the CEO of TOLOnews’s parent company, said the network is “working like crazy” to replace reporters fleeing the country; he told Dan Bilefsky, of the Times, that young Afghans, in particular, expect some freedom of information, and that he doesn’t think the Taliban will “suddenly be able to deprogram people.” Still, Mohseni told Bilefksy that he is “surprised” TOLOnews hasn’t been shut down yet—an observation that reflects a common fear: once it consolidates its hold on Afghanistan, the Taliban will try to wipe away twenty years of press freedom. Anna K. Nelson, the US executive director of Reporters Without Borders, told Stelter that she worries the country could become a “black hole” for news. Frud Bezhan, a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, tweeted after the US withdrawal that Afghan journalists and others who fear Taliban reprisals are already censoring themselves: destroying SIM cards, deleting photos, and deactivating their social media, among other precautions. Broadcasters have been ordered to air Taliban propaganda. A producer at a private network told RSF that, even though the Taliban has not laid down formal rules for the media, in practice, they already “control everything we broadcast.”

If the future of Afghan journalism remains highly uncertain, so, too, does the future of Western news organizations’ journalism about Afghanistan. There is, of course, no clear boundary between these categories, since foreign outlets have relied on both Afghan media and their own Afghan staffers on the ground. Many—though by no means all—of these journalists have now been evacuated; the same is true of foreign correspondents. Overseas outlets now rely heavily on social media and other long-distance reporting tools that are poor substitutes for in-person coverage. Last week, editors at major US outlets told Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein that their presence in Afghanistan will ultimately depend on the Taliban, and that it’s too soon to make firm plans. The same outlets promised that, whatever their access, they will continue to prioritize the Afghanistan story even after the US retreat. But there’s ample reason to doubt that. The US domestic news cycle is hellishly busy right now, and even in quieter times, the war rarely made headline news. It’s taken the withdrawal to tragically, belatedly, refocus attention.

Any country that is struggling deserves the media’s ongoing engagement, especially where those struggles are a legacy of American intervention. As I’ve written before, much US commentary around the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been divorced from the mess that preceded it, presenting a distorted narrative: some pundits who favor continued occupation point to low recent fatality rates among US service members without mentioning the death toll among Afghans, many of them killed by US weapons. Over the weekend, a number of news organizations parroted a US military announcement touting a successful drone strike against terrorists who posed an imminent threat to Kabul’s airport; when journalists showed up to the scene, however, they found that the attack seemed to have targeted a civilian’s car in a residential area, killing ten members of the man’s family, seven of them children. The Pentagon continues to claim that it hit its mark, even as it’s since acknowledged the possibility of civilian casualties.

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As several observers have noted, the recent centrality of Afghanistan in the news cycle and the fact that the strike hit Kabul meant that reporters were present to vet the Pentagon’s claims. But many past US drone strikes have hit remote rural areas, where there have been few, if any, journalists on hand to cover what happened for the international press, and since the Taliban began its advance, independent Afghan news outlets have also faced suppression in provinces far from the capital. Contrary to the view that the war in Afghanistan is “over,” the Kabul strike, as The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain put it, shows how it “may simply enter a new chapter, with the US striking targets with aircraft launched from faraway drone bases.” The Biden administration has foreshadowed as much, promising to maintain what it calls “over the horizon” military capabilities. US news outlets will need to keep an eagle eye on that horizon. Our work isn’t done.

Below, more on Afghanistan:

  • Mexico’s role: Last week, Ben Smith, of the Times, detailed how the government of Mexico helped his paper evacuate Afghan staff, promising them temporary refuge while they figured out their visa options in the US and other countries. On Sunday, Mexico welcomed eighty-six more Afghan media workers and family members, most of whom worked for the Wall Street Journal. Mexico has now accepted more than two hundred journalists and their dependents. Reuters has more.
  • An open letter: Over the weekend, a hundred and fifty Afghan journalists signed an open letter asking the international community for ongoing protection. “Considering the increasing challenges and threats facing media workers, as well as their families and property, we urge the United Nations and donor countries to take action to save our lives and our families,” the letter read. Afghan media workers have also launched a social-media campaign to draw attention to their plight; TOLOnews has more details.
  • A special citation: Late last week, the board of the Pulitzer Prizes awarded a special citation to Afghan media workers—including correspondents, interpreters, and drivers—who have “dedicated themselves at great personal risk to create and support journalism that has chronicled decades of life and war” and “helped produce Pulitzer-winning and Pulitzer-worthy images and stories that have contributed to a wider understanding of profoundly tragic and complicated circumstances.” The board also awarded a hundred-thousand-dollar grant to support Afghan journalists’ “continued work or their resettlement.” The Committee to Protect Journalists will administer the grant.
  • On the right: Sara Fischer and Neal Rothschild report, for Axios, that right-wing outlets in the US have exploited the crisis in Afghanistan to juice ratings and engagement. According to audience data, “traffic to twenty of the top conservative news websites was up 4.2 percent the week of August 10, when Afghanistan began to dominate the news cycle,” Fischer and Rothschild write. The sites “saw higher traffic jumps over the last two weeks than mainstream media websites, like USA Today or Reuters.”

Some news from the home front:
This morning, CJR is out with “Beyond Atonement,” a package assessing our coverage of race in media over six decades, compiled by our recent class of fellows: Shinhee Kang, Feven Merid, and Ian W. Karbal. “CJR’s position in journalism is unique; it covers the people who cover the people, acting as a critical voice for colleagues in other newsrooms,” Alexandria Neason, our former staff writer, who proposed the project, explains. “At the same time, it is very much a part of the structures of oppression pervasive in the industry as a whole. If CJR hopes to be taken seriously as an outlet positioned to read everybody else, it must first read itself.” The project revealed “an inconsistent, often reactive approach to reporting on racial oppression” in the pages of CJR, Neason writes. “If reporting is an endeavor in revelation, then its perpetual work—as Audre Lorde teaches—is to transform silence into language and action.” You can read more here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, as search-and-rescue teams moved swiftly to help victims of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, the extent of the damage became increasingly visible: a second person was confirmed to have died, four hospitals sustained damage, and millions could be without power for weeks. Shaquille Brewster, of NBC News, was reporting live from Gulfport, Mississippi, when a man jumped out of a truck and started berating him, yelling, “report accurately”; Brewster tried to ignore the man, but was eventually forced to throw back to the studio. (Brewster and his team were not hurt.)
  • Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo profiles “the COVID commentariat”: an “army” of medical experts, physicians, and public health figures “who have gone from relative obscurity to household names.” Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Pompeo that his years of work inoculating mice in a windowless research lab “was the opposite of training” for regular cable-news hits. “I think it’s important for voices like mine to be out there,” Offit said. “But on the other hand, it is worrisomely seductive.”
  • In her newsletter, HEATED, Emily Atkin asks why the Times won’t stop accepting ads placed by the fossil-fuel industry. Several current and former Times staffers told Atkin that it upsets them. “Their concerns ranged from undermining the Times’s own climate reporting, to harming Times readers’ health, to aiding industry attempts to mislead the public about the deadly effects of fossil fuels,” Atkin writes.
  • Maria Bustillos, CJR’s public editor for MSNBC, takes aim at how much the network touts its Nielsen ratings. For MSNBC and other networks, Bustillos writes, “providing reliable information and maintaining high journalistic standards are ancillary” to “their real product: advertising.”
  • Yesterday, the producers of The View, on ABC, said they plan to “take a little time” to replace Meghan McCain, who recently quit. For now, her spot will be filled by a rotating roster of conservative guest panelists, including Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state; Mia Love, a former Congresswoman; Gretchen Carlson, formerly of Fox; and cable-news regulars including S.E. Cupp, Eboni K. Williams, and Alyssa Farah.
  • Sarah Bartlett, the dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, announced yesterday that she plans to retire at the end of the current academic year, after nine years. During her tenure, Bartlett helped found the Center for Community Media, which facilitates coverage of underrepresented communities, and conducted research on public ad spending in local news.
  • The British government is working on a bill that would force tech companies to protect their users from “harmful content”; officials have promised a journalistic exemption, but have not said what they believe constitutes “journalism.” Civil-liberties groups, Politico’s Annabelle Dickson reports, fear that “public interest citizen journalism could be removed at the behest of regulators under pressure from ministers without parliamentary scrutiny.”
  • The government of South Korea is trying to pass a bill that aims to tackle “fake news,” but journalists fear it will give officials wide latitude to muzzle reporting they don’t like. A Korean journalist told Deutsche Welle that many colleagues have been “shocked” by the bill, given the ruling party’s nominally liberal orientation. Yesterday, opposition lawmakers delayed a vote on the bill, but they lack the votes to unilaterally block its final passage. (For more on disinformation legislation in South Korea, read E. Tammy Kim in CJR.)
  • And William G. Clotworthy, the former in-house censor at Saturday Night Live, has died. He was ninety-five. When he took the job, in 1979, he had never seen SNL, but “he fell in love with the show and its brand of satire, and he worked with its writers to tweak questionable material,” Clay Risen writes, for the Times. Colleagues called him “Dr. No.”

ICYMI: Counting the costs of an apocalyptic news cycle

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.