Journalism on the Afghanistan withdrawal often suffered from missing context, tacit assumptions, over-editorializing, and emotion at the expense of nuance.
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The withdrawal from Afghanistan marked a pivotal moment in American history. In April 2021, as soon as President Joe Biden announced that U.S. troops would be leaving the country by September, the Taliban began a steady advance, defeating Afghan forces throughout the country and seizing vast amounts of territory. On August 15, the Taliban gained control of Kabul, just hours after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. The task of the Biden administration became to evacuate thousands of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies as quickly as possible. In the initial days, the evacuation was chaotic. But by the end of August, the U.S. and allies had completed the largest airlift in American history, evacuating 120,000 people in the span of a few weeks.
The media coverage of these rapidly unfolding events was, at times, palpably emotional. The humanitarian consequences of the Taliban’s return to power were undeniable. And Americans, in general, had legitimate reasons to feel both grief and anger: 20 years of military engagement had ended and, as we witnessed terrified Afghan civilians clinging to planes, desperate to escape, it was unclear what all this war had accomplished.
Still, other aspects of the coverage were problematic. For example, context was often missing, such as the fact that former President Donald Trump had initially made the withdrawal deal with the Taliban. It was also frequently unclear which events were the inevitable consequence of withdrawal and what could have been avoided had the Biden administration made different choices. Additionally, the coverage of Afghanistan was not just passionate, but it seemed at times to editorialize when reporting the facts. For many observers, the tenor of the Afghanistan coverage was especially notable given that press coverage is often so neutral that critical stakes may be obscured. For example, NBC’s Richard Engel called the Afghanistan withdrawal, “the worst capitulation of Western values in our lifetimes,” a fairly clear case of editorializing. Meanwhile, reporting on other issues has seemed markedly more neutral. This contrast in coverage led some observers to wonder why the Afghanistan coverage was so distinct.
For insight into America’s coverage of the event, I spoke with five people who work in journalism about what made the Afghanistan coverage so unique, what journalists could have done differently, and whether they felt the press treated this story differently than other current events. Those featured are:
Eric Boehlert is a journalist and the founder of Press Run, a newsletter that provides media critiques from a liberal perspective.
Greg Sargent is an opinion writer who covers politics at the Washington Post.
Karoli Kuns is the managing editor of Crooks and Liars, a progressive website that tracks right wing media.
David Roberts is a journalist who writes at Volts, a newsletter about clean energy, climate change, and politics.
Lindsay Beyerstein is a freelance investigative journalist who writes about politics and media.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
DAME: The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a pivotal moment in modern American history. Journalists were tasked with documenting the events as they unfolded, from the fall of the Afghan government to the evacuation of Afghan allies. How would you characterize the general media coverage?
Eric Boehlert: It was pretty abysmal. It was relentless. [It was] 24-hour crisis coverage for three weeks when, within those three weeks, there were probably four days of actual crisis and the rest was ‘Afghan Optics’ crisis. A lot of coverage was done by people who cover politics for a living, so there was an attempt to create a sort of story arc, a narrative. The good guys and the bad guys. And, once you create that narrative, you can just go back to it every day. Everyone knows the characters. Everyone knows the plots. And we just pick it up from the day before.
Greg Sargent: It was clearly problematic in some respects. It seems to me like the tenor of some of the quicker, more off-hand reactions came down on a pro-prolonged engagement side in a way that has frankly been surprising. A lot of the general reactions embodied hidden assumptions that were unstated, so there’s been a certain type of reaction from some commentators that takes it as a given that there was some kind of alternate way of doing the withdrawal that would have been more successful. Now, to be absolutely clear, there are all sorts of problems with how Biden handled this, and we need to know a lot about what happened and why. But I don’t think we know as an objective fact that there was an alternate way to do this that would have been substantially better.
Sargent went on to note a strength of the reporting:
The coverage that has sought to convey the human element of withdrawal, by which I mean all the different varieties of human suffering, the deep frustrations of a lot of people who had hoped for a much better outcome—on all sides, Afghans, Americans, etc.—that coverage seems to me to have been very compelling and informative.
Karoli Kuns: The general media coverage was abysmal. Sensationalized garbage. Instead of reporting facts, reporters engaged in advocacy for continued war.No one reported that this deadline had been coming for months, or that Americans had been repeatedly contacted and warned to leave Afghanistan far ahead of the airlift.
Reports left the viewer and reader with these impressions: 1) Everything we’d done in Afghanistan was a failure because of this withdrawal; 2) Continuing to occupy Afghanistan was a far better outcome than leaving; and 3) It was more important to remain in Afghanistan and fight (yet another) Taliban takeover. No attention was paid to the corruption of the Afghan government with American dollars.
David Roberts: It was always going to be the case that the Taliban were going to take back over. No matter how much money we pumped in, it wasn’t going to be enough to prop up that state. And, for a long time, we were knowingly wasting money and lives because we wanted to avoid the political fiasco of just getting out. Finally, Biden has the courage to do it, and, all of a sudden here comes everyone pretending that there was something Biden did that uniquely caused this result, as if this result were not inevitable. As though there was any happy ending. The only other alternative was another massive surge of troops, which no one wanted.
After all this, Americans still don’t have a sense of the limits of American military power. This would have been a perfect opportunity to have a mature, grown-up conversation of what America can and cannot do with its military. A discussion that would involve us internalizing the fact that we’re not all-powerful.
Lindsay Beyerstein: It seemed to be happening in an empirical vacuum. There was a ton of editorializing from people that just had no idea about whether it was actually feasible to start getting people out earlier and whether that could have been executed better before saying ‘this is a disaster’. There were just crickets as to what exactly that would have been. There was very little emphasis on the fact that Biden was doing what the American people wanted. Even after it became clear how horrific and demoralizing the process of leaving Afghanistan was going to be, majorities of Americans still felt this was the right thing to do and we weren’t getting anything like ‘[Biden] is doing what the people want’. It was always about how it was going to cost him politically or how it was a blunder, rather than a tough strategic decision.
Beyerstein, like Greg Sargent, also noted positive aspects to the coverage:
It was good that they kept pressure on the Biden administration to rescue as many people as possible. So I don’t want to say that it was unilaterally bad that the press was asking, ‘why aren’t you going faster?, why aren’t you doing more? . . . It could be viewed as positive advocacy in some ways.
DAME: As news about Afghanistan developed, the United States also faced multiple domestic crises: a surging pandemic, abortion bans, and increased voting restrictions. Does coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal stand out as different from coverage of other urgent current events? If yes, how so?
Boehlert: I think what sets it apart is the tonnage. They really parked on the story for two or three weeks. During four years of the Trump administration, I don’t think a single story got parked on for two or three weeks—and that includes two impeachments. The reason for that is kind of obvious. It was a constant cycle of scandal and outrage and hate. . . The Biden administration is the complete opposite. There is no chaos. There are no scandals. The Trump circus left town and I think what Afghanistan offered was a return to hysteria.
And, through the month of August, the Texas abortion bill was virtually ignored because news organizations were so obsessed with Afghanistan. There are real-world consequences when you focus on one story too much at the cost of other stories.
Sargent: A lot of journalists seemed to show really palpable anger, emotion, and outrage, and yet it often seems that a lot of that is missing when it comes to the epic levels of bad faith coming from Republicans and their concertedly anti-democratic conduct. I feel strongly that what is happening with our democracy right now should be covered with sufficient urgency. This goes for all of us. We still all struggle to come up with the right language to capture what’s going on with the radicalization of the right and the attempt to overturn the election. We don’t have the right language for it yet. I think there’s a level of malevolence and bad faith at the heart of this that’s hard to render faithfully. And I count myself in this. I feel like we’re never quite there. We never quite get it right.
This gets to the essence of one of the big problems here. That flagrantly anti-democratic combat is sometimes treated as sort of partisan warfare as usual. And it really isn’t that. Maybe the way to think of this is that the challenge to all of us is to convey faithfully how unusual this is. I think a lot of Americans are really being treated to a kind of mode of coverage that obscures this very profound imbalance between the two parties on really the fundamentals of democracy.
Kuns: It does stand out. It was portrayed as a disaster unlike any we have seen before. The same faces who sold the Iraq war were dragged in front of the cameras and in the newspapers to tell us why the war shouldn’t end, why it was a fool’s errand, and why we will now be terrorized as a result. Contrast that with the voting rights or abortion issues, where coverage was perfunctory at best until it became a crisis (see the Texas abortion bill) and was too late to do anything. Or voting rights, framed through right-wing frames of nonexistent voter fraud.
Roberts: Look at what’s going on with climate change. We know the number of people who are going to suffer is unfathomable. We know, objectively, the consequences are going to be horrific. And Republicans are unanimously refusing to do fucking anything about it. And I ask you, why, given those circumstances, which are so clear, why isn’t the media upset? Why aren’t they flooding the zone with coverage about how Republicans are fighting against these efforts to save our asses? There is no way to justify the media’s reaction to Afghanistan versus their reaction to climate change. Instead, they cover climate change as this technical science issue and as a both-sides conflict. I just want someone—some national editor or someone who runs a cable news show—to explain to me: what is the difference between withdrawal from Afghanistan and our ongoing failure to do shit about climate change that justifies getting furious and flooding the zone with the first and basically doing fuck all about the second?
Beyerstein: Certainly there’s a contrast in terms of coronavirus. There’s a very clear causal and moral responsibility of Southern governors who refuse to do any mitigation and the fact that their states are being overwhelmed by coronavirus. There’s a very clear line of responsibility here where certain public officials are not doing the bare minimum and the federal government is having to step in and help and sending in Navy teams to bail out hospitals. So there are people who are doing the right thing and people who are doing the wrong thing. Officials who have abandoned their people, and officials who are serving their people. I don’t get that narrative consistently from the coverage.
Several themes emerged from these interviews. Journalism on the Afghanistan withdrawal often suffered from missing context, tacit assumptions, over-editorializing, and emotion at the expense of nuance. Notably, everyone I spoke to argued that the coverage seemed to suggest, even if only implicitly, that preferable options to withdrawal existed. These unstated alternatives—and the various consequences they would entail—escaped critical examination, leaving the audience with a lopsided view of a complicated situation. Were some journalists, for example, implying that prolonged engagement would have been an option with more desirable outcomes? They did not tell us. As Lindsay Beyerstein noted, “It was like [the coverage] was happening in an empirical vacuum.”
As Eric Boehlert argued, the Afghanistan coverage was also driven by a narrative structure with a dramatic, but overly rigid plot. This observation elucidates another reason why this specific news story stood in such contrast with others: the coverage contained elements other reporting often lacks: a sense of urgency, a willingness to assign responsibility to political leaders, and a strong focus on human welfare. In other cases, such as attacks on our democracy and the delta surge, the agency of political actors is frequently diluted, as are the human costs of their choices. David Roberts, in particular, beseeched us all to view climate change through a more consistent narrative lens: “Politicians in power are making decisions as we speak. Millions of people will be condemned to suffer and die depending on these decisions. What could be more dramatic than that?”
These interviews also made clear that journalists are currently facing many thorny questions about how to most accurately convey information to the American public. In the case of Afghanistan coverage, perhaps passion overwhelmed nuance. And, for other news reporting, perhaps misguided notions of neutrality have obscured essential truths. How to find the right journalistic balance is not always clear. Greg Sargent, however, suggested a path forward: “It seems like it would be very beneficial if all of us as journalists leveled with the public that it’s hard and approached this from a posture of humility where we say: ‘I don’t know if I’m getting it right.’”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Richard Engel worked for the New York Times. He is the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News.
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