Biden, Trump, and the missing big picture in Afghanistan coverage

Last Sunday, in the hours after Kabul fell to the Taliban, swathes of the mainstream US news media instantly savaged President Biden for losing Afghanistan. In the week since then, he has stayed under an intense spotlight. News organizations have disputed the accuracy of many of his claims about the situation on the ground—a “credibility gap,” Politico’s Playbook newsletter wrote over the weekend, “that is dominating the coverage right now and could threaten Biden’s standing with the public.” The credibility-gap narrative has extended overseas, with American commentators and foreign outlets alike stating that Biden has taken a wrecking ball to global perceptions of US prestige and reliability. “Our allies are furious,” Andrea Mitchell, chief Washington correspondent at NBC News, said on Meet the Press yesterday. “We have destroyed morale that [Biden] was rebuilding. I mean, it is a real problem for America’s leadership abroad.” Where doubts as to truthfulness and American world leadership go, Trump comparisons surely follow. The withdrawal has “undercut some of the most fundamental premises of Mr. Biden’s presidency,” Peter Baker wrote in a New York Times news analysis piece on Friday—that “unlike his erratic, self-absorbed predecessor, he brought foreign policy seasoning, adults-in-the-room judgment and a surfeit of empathy to the Oval Office.”

This framing—and the wider media frenzy over Afghanistan—has annoyed the White House. According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Biden aides view the coverage as “overheated and out of step with the American public’s views” of the withdrawal, points echoed by his political allies. “The media tends to bend over backwards to ‘both-sides’ all of their coverage, but they made an exception for this,” Eric Schultz, who served in the Obama administration, told HuffPost. “As a Democrat, I’m very relieved and encouraged and heartened that the White House knows they’re speaking to the country, not just Playbook subscribers.” That the White House would be irked by critical coverage is not a surprise—and the public mood is not a reliable assignment editor for the press. Still, the outraged moral tone coursing through much of the coverage does indeed seem out of step with mainstream news organizations’ traditional self-conception: that they are disinterested chroniclers of the truth. As regular readers of this newsletter will know, I am no fan of that self-conception. What’s jarring here, rather, is the apparent inconsistency: these same outlets regularly cover suffering overseas—or, very often, hardly cover it at all—without the indignant editorializing. This has been true, in the all-too-recent past, of Afghanistan coverage. It is arguably true, in the present, of Haiti, where urgent health and political crises were further compounded by an earthquake that struck the day before the fall of Kabul, and has since been almost totally overshadowed by the latter story in the news cycle, despite some solid reporting from the ground. No American action directly precipitated the earthquake. But America is complicit enough in Haiti’s other crises that the story hardly exists in a separate moral sphere to the Afghanistan story. The issue here, perhaps, is not that the latter is overheated so much as other stories are underheated. In coverage of cruelty abroad, the double standard is the point.

Related: The journalists leaving Afghanistan, and those who haven’t made it out

In recent days, the likes of Matthew Yglesias and Hunter Walker have made the case that major US outlets will focus on humanitarian crises only when doing so, as Yglesias put it, “is complementary to aggressive use of American military force.” Others have pushed back, arguing that many reporters have worked closely with Afghans on the ground, and so are personally invested in their safety. This argument is wholly understandable—but it doesn’t resolve the double-standard problem; as with the public mood, the direct investment of Western journalists is not an adequate gauge of moral righteousness. Nor does it, in itself, defeat the Yglesias/Walker argument. As many observers have noted in recent days, the outrage in coverage has not only been driven by war reporters with track records of paying close attention to Afghanistan, but by Washington-based politicians and national-security pundits with well-established hawkish views—and in some cases, as The Intercept has reported, ongoing professional and financial ties to the military-industrial complex. Major outlets have treated such figures as expert observers, not as subjects with their own, deep complicity in the Afghanistan mess. Longtime opponents of military intervention, by contrast, have been much less visible.

Senior journalists have frequently argued that criticizing the execution of the withdrawal is not the same as advocating Forever War. This position makes sense, on its face; there is much to criticize in the withdrawal that is squarely on Biden, and there are undoubtedly many critics out there who are making such points without a hidden, bellicose agenda. Again, however, a double standard shows the limits of this position—namely, that the overall level of media focus on the withdrawal has massively dwarfed its focus on any number of prior horrors in Afghanistan that reflected poorly on the US military presence, rather than its absence. Even if you accept that the withdrawal is objectively a bigger story than such horrors—and that’s a big if—it doesn’t explain why so much current coverage is so lacking, as I wrote last week, in the basic context of how we got to this disastrous point. The news deals primarily in what’s new, but in this case, history isn’t some luxury that would have been nice to include if we had more time, but an essential, fundamental part of the story. You cannot honestly cover—let alone criticize—the execution of the withdrawal without addressing the execution of the entire war. In neglecting the latter, news outlets are, as New York’s Eric Levitz put it last week, “helping hawks recast an indictment of martial adventurism into an object lesson in the hazards of military restraint.”

Another strand of context has often been missing from coverage, too—that Biden’s withdrawal reflects a radical, possibly generational, redefinition of America’s role in the world, and that this demands serious media engagement, whether you agree with it or not. This redefinition started, arguably, under Trump, who it made it easier for the liberal press to dismiss it as unserious: Trump’s isolationist vision was inseparable from his racism and nativism, and besides, pundits assured us, Trump was an aberration from the finest traditions of American global leadership. When Biden won, these pundits hailed a return to the status quo ante; in many ways, this was fair—unlike Trump, Biden does prize cooperation with US allies—but it also misread how Biden would define the boundaries of that engagement. Biden is altogether harder to dismiss than Trump, and some good coverage in the past week has, indeed, engaged seriously on an intellectual level with his worldview. Other coverage has discredited Biden by lazy Trumpian association, writing off the withdrawal as the sort of awful thing the last guy would have done.

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One month after Trump took office, Bill O’Reilly, then of Fox, asked him about Vladimir Putin, referring to Putin as a “killer.” “We’ve got a lot of killers,” Trump replied. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Trump’s remarks were grist, at the time, for the frenzied Russia news cycle, and sections of the press savaged him, not unfairly, for excusing Putin’s behavior. At root, though, they communicated a deeper truth about America’s behavior on the world stage—perhaps the most profound of a presidency defined by thousands of lies. Contrary to the narrative of total, “America First” isolationism, Trump’s actions, in office, were often militaristic—not least early last year, when he assassinated Qassem Suleimani, Iran’s top general. The mainstream coverage of that episode was not perfect—but on the whole, it channeled broader skepticism than we’ve come to expect about the limits of military force, in no small part because such a notoriously reckless and dishonest president was the one administering it.

As I wrote at the time, a key challenge, going forward, would be for the press to “apply at least this level of attention and skepticism to future administrations,” since “governments of all stripes routinely lie about war.” Biden is no exception to this, and his demonstrable falsehoods about the situation on the ground deserve, urgently, to be called out. In his recent interviews and speeches, though, Biden has also been startlingly candid about how he sees the limits of American force—honesty that pundits have sometimes written off as a deficit of “empathy.” Again, you don’t have to agree with what he’s saying to understand its importance for American foreign policy. Many reporters and pundits, it seems, would rather stick their fingers in their ears.

Below, more on Afghanistan:


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Journalism failed in Afghanistan too

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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.