Post's Margaret Sullivan: After 20 Years of Afghan Debacle, Media Fixed Blame in 2 HoursBreaking News
tags: war on terror, Afghanistan, media, journalism, Afghanistan Papers
If ever a big, breaking story demanded that the news media provide historical context and carefully avoid partisan blame, it’s the story of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Instead, what we largely got over the past few days was the all-too-familiar genre of “winners and losers” coverage. It’s coverage that tends to elevate and amplify punditry over news, and to assign long-lasting political ramifications to a still-developing situation.
And when news consumers have been tuned out of a story — as they are, unfortunately, with most international coverage — this quick-take journalism can be damaging and misleading.
Evidence of this nuance-deprived, overstated coverage was obvious throughout big and small news organizations over the weekend and across the political spectrum.
Here’s the predictable headline on Miranda Devine’s column in the Murdoch-owned New York Post: “Joe Biden’s defeat in Afghanistan will echo for eternity.” She trashes Biden — “the reverse Midas touch” in all things so far — and admiringly quotes former president Donald Trump on what a great job he would have done. (It does seem like he had his chances, though, doesn’t it?) There it is: the loser and the forever, would-be winner.
In the much more left-leaning Atlantic, here’s the headline on George Packer’s analysis: “Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy.”
Axios, the digital, short-bite news site, gleefully joined the party: “Rarely has an American president’s predictions been so wrong, so fast, so convincingly as Biden on Afghanistan.”
And when I picked up the print edition of what is (for a few summer weeks) my local daily newspaper, the Buffalo News, the front-page headline was a slightly more restrained echo: “Afghanistan collapse could leave indelible stain on Biden legacy.”
The truth is quite a bit more complicated than all of that, and once you get past the headlines, some of the coverage — including Packer’s — reflects that. But for an American public that largely ignores serious international news short of a bona fide crisis, this will be the enduring takeaway.
The situation is tragic, no doubt, and the images of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Sunday are stunningly memorable, but the blame has to be spread much more evenly. Biden has been in office for just over seven months; the always untenable Afghan war — and its sure-to-be-terrible ending — has been a disaster for decades. It cuts across political parties: begun by a Republican, George W. Bush, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and presided over by two Obama terms and four years of Trump.
Throughout, the American government has lied to the American people about how well things were going in America’s longest war, as The Washington Post’s important 2019 project, “The Afghanistan Papers,” made abundantly clear. Sometimes compared to the Pentagon Papers that chronicled a secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it relied on more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits to drive home its conclusion.
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