The American print press is almost totally absent from Afghanistan, leaving the reporting to a handful of news organizations. TV coverage averages 21 seconds per newscast for NBC and not much more for ABC and CBS. One critic says the lack of sustained American TV reporting of Afghanistan is ‘the most irresponsible behavior in all of the annals of war journalism.’
By John Hanrahan
Part of a Nieman Watchdog series, ‘Reporting the Endgame‘, and the first of two articles on something that is almost totally lacking in news coverage: first-hand reporting from Afghanistan.
The United States is bogged down in a 10-year-old war in Afghanistan in which 100,000 American troops and 40,000 other NATO personnel are fighting at a cost to U.S. taxpayers of $2 billion a week in a country beset by grinding poverty and ever-increasing civilian and military casualties. There is no shortage of news to be covered, all of it with serious ramifications for the Afghan people and for American foreign policy and military spending, decision-making and the ravages of war.
Yet, other than in its early stages in 2001-2002, the American press has greatly under-reported this war. Only handfuls of reporters are stationed there for more than brief periods. They often do remarkable reporting but face numerous problems that can affect coverage: roadside bombs; the threat of kidnapping if they stray too far from Kabul on their own; language barriers; strict constraints when they are embedded with the military; having to cope with the military’s spin on particular battle actions or policies; budget issues that can limit a reporter’s support personnel, etc. And when they overcome such problems the reporting is still sparse: There are just too few reporters to describe the war and life in Afghanistan.
Perhaps no story other than the nation’s continuing economic, jobs and housing crisis is as worthy of extensive reportage as this major and unpopular war in Afghanistan/Pakistan – but to say that the press overall is barely covering it is unfortunately all too true. The Pew Charitable Trust reported in January that for all of 2010 only 4 percent of the news hole in the nation’s newspapers was devoted to war news originating either in Afghanistan or the United States. (The ongoing war in Iraq fared even worse, with 1 percent coverage in 2010.)
More recently, in a July 18-24 survey, the Afghanistan war scored so low in coverage that it didn’t show up on the chart, meaning it was below 3 percent, after being at 5 percent the previous week.
As skimpy as newspaper coverage of the Afghanistan/Pakistan war has been, TV has been even stingier. The Tyndall Report, which monitors network TV news (but not Fox or CNN), reported that in 2010 the Afghan war received a total of 416 minutes of coverage out of some 15,000 minutes of news broadcast by ABC, CBS and NBC in their 30-minute weekday evening news programs. This represented a 25 percent drop from the 2009 figure of 556 minutes. CBS led with 174 minutes of coverage in 2010, followed by ABC at 150, with NBC lagging with 91 (7 minutes more than the Vancouver Winter Olympics, 23 minutes more than airline anti-terrorist security stories, and 26 minutes more than the Toyota jammed-accelerator story). The NBC coverage figures out to average 21 seconds per newscast – or less than 2 minutes per week. The Iraq war fared even worse – 94 total minutes from all three networks, with CBS the lowest at 24 minutes – one minute every two weeks.
This paucity of reporting – the almost total reliance on just a few reporters – has stark implications for how the war is perceived back home. The fewer the reporters, the fewer the first-hand accounts needed for citizens to form knowledgeable opinions of the war. It’s an issue that is hardly ever discussed in the press but one that is not lost on historians. University of Michigan professor Juan Cole told Nieman Watchdog that the lack of “sustained television reportage of Afghanistan is inexcusable” and represents “the most irresponsible behavior in all of the annals of war journalism.” Other experts and experienced war correspondents of the Vietnam era also were highly critical.
One big reason why you don’t see much news about Afghanistan in your newspaper or on television: According to our count, it appears on the print side that only five U.S. newspaper organizations and two wire services – The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers, the Associated Press and Reuters – currently maintain bureaus in Afghanistan on a regular basis. GlobalPost, a two-year-old Internet news outlet with contract and freelance correspondents worldwide, also has a permanent Afghanistan presence. Time and the Christian Science Monitor have regular stringers in Kabul, while Newsweek has no one permanently in Afghanistan, but does have a stringer in Islamabad, Pakistan, who also covers Afghanistan.
On the broadcast side, there are apparently only 10 or fewer full-time correspondents in Afghanistan at any one time. Again according to our count, among the broadcast news outlets currently with full-time correspondents in Afghanistan are National Public Radio (NPR), ABC News and CBS News, while CNN has a stringer. NBC News and Fox News have not responded to our inquiries, but it appears from an Internet search and information from other news media personnel that neither of them currently has a full-time staff correspondent in Afghanistan.
The CBS correspondent in Afghanistan for the last two years, Mandy Clark, apparently represents the wave of the future for TV foreign correspondents in a time of tighter newsroom budgets. She is a digital journalist – “a one-man band,” as the New York Observer dubbed such reporters. The Observer noted a “major shift” in overseas news coverage by the networks: “Out: large permanent bureaus. In: digital journalists armed with laptops and small cameras, who can report, shoot and edit their own video, while moving in and out of regions quickly.” The newspaper quoted Paul Friedman, a senior vice president for CBS News, as saying: “The old model no longer applies. You do not need a massive infrastructure, as long as you can mobilize people quickly when the story develops.”
U.S. news junkies, of course, can also take the time to access, on the Internet or on television, other English-language news media that currently have reporters in Afghanistan: the BBC, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Guardian newspaper of London, and Al Jazeera, among others.
In a time of declining newspaper readership and TV news audiences, sagging advertising revenue, newsroom layoffs, tighter budgets and the high cost of maintaining overseas bureaus, major news organizations have opted to do away with most, if not all, of their full-time foreign bureaus and rely on wire service reports or on arrangements with the few newspapers that continue to have an overseas presence. Many print and broadcast organizations that lack correspondents visit Afghanistan periodically to embed with the troops or to do special reports, but these infrequent reports – even those that are quite well-done – are no substitute for a permanent presence in the country.
George C. Wilson, a veteran military correspondent, did combat reporting tours for the Washington Post in Vietnam, Latin America and the Middle East, and was embedded with a mobile Marine artillery unit during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, filing stories for the National Journal. Wilson said of embedding, “I felt like the second sled in a dogsled team,” subject to military rules and the mission, movements and timetable of the Marine unit.
Sometimes his unit would pass people who would be cheering. Why were they cheering? He couldn’t find out because the unit kept moving. Sometimes people weren’t cheering. Why were they not cheering? Again, he couldn’t know because the unit had to keep moving. Once embedded, Wilson said, “it’s tough to disembed.” He said he managed to leave the unit for a few days, spending time with a Navy doctor in the countryside and doing reporting from there. If you can’t go out and independently report at your own pace, as is frequently the case in Afghanistan, Wilson said, there is no way you can get a more complete picture of a war and its impact. (Wilson did cite one reporter, Carlotta Gall of the New York Times who, he said, has overcome such limitations. He said Gall operates independently and “with tribal contacts. She knows the scene.”)
During the Vietnam war, wide-ranging, on-the-ground print and broadcast coverage often was credited with altering Americans’ perception of that war and turning public opinion against it. Television news was in the forefront of such coverage then. But, as the daily newscast figures cited above indicate, that’s not the case today – and this at a time when the Pew Charitable Trustfound that two-thirds of the adult public still say they rely heavily on television for national and international news, compared to 31 percent for newspapers. The Internet was cited as a primary news source by 41 percent – triple what it was a decade earlier, but still far less than for TV.
The tiny number of correspondents in Afghanistan contrasts sharply with the coverage during the Vietnam war. In 1964, there were only 40 foreign reporters of all nationalities in Vietnam, but as President Johnson escalated the war, that figure had jumped by January 1966 to 282, of whom 110 were Americans. This 282 figure shot up again by August of that year to 419. As the war continued, still more American reporters poured into Vietnam, apparently reaching more than 200 at one point. Even as U.S. troop withdrawals increased and the so-called “Vietnamization” segment of the war intensified, there were still almost 200 accredited American correspondents in Vietnam in 1971, far more than there are in Afghanistan today when the war there is in one of its most intense phases. Even by September 1973, six months after the United States had removed its last combat troops, there were still 59 American reporters in Vietnam.
Regarding war coverage, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service quoted Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which studies public opinion on international issues: “What really stands out is the decline in international news coverage over time…It reversed after 9/11, but now there seems to be a general slide back to historical lows. That’s really striking in that the U.S. is still at war in two theaters, and the U.S. economy is more sensitive to global conditions than ever.”
Professor Cole of Michigan, a specialist on the Muslim world and writer of the widely-read “Informed Comment”blog, told Nieman Watchdog that when you have a major war that involves 100,000 U.S. troops and that has been going on for 10 years, television news – using airwaves owned by the public – has an obligation to be there. Yet, said Cole, “there can be a major firefight, something close to an actual battle” or some other major development and there will be no on-the-ground U.S. television coverage.
Cole noted that NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel this spring did a special program on the Afghanistan war, as he has in the past, and Cole complimented him for it. But, he added that occasional specials on the war are no substitute for having reporters permanently on the ground and reporting on an almost daily basis – the way Al Jazeera English, the Qatar-based network, does. He said Al Jazeera (accessible on the Internet and by a limited number of U.S. home television viewers) shows itself to be more interested in informing the public from many of the world’s hot spots than U.S. networks which, he said, view the Afghanistan war as a “downer story” amid their frothy entertainment programming
As Cole said about Al Jazeera in his blog: “… Al Jazeera is not sympathetic to al-Qaeda or Muslim radicalism, but has a philosophy of reporting all sides of conflicts…Unlike U.S. network news, they don’t consider themselves our nannies, that they should filter the news for us and protect us from hearing the words of enemies.” The failures of U.S. television news coverage contribute to a poorly-informed citizenry – a state of affairs, Cole said, that is “actually a national security issue.”
Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy studies program, told Nieman Watchdog that the low number of foreign correspondents “means there are fewer reporters who develop any sort of expertise about a particular country.” This in turn means that other reporters, commentators and academics and think-tank scholars back in the United States, who write and speak about Afghanistan and Pakistan, have access to only a small pool of in-country journalists from whom to draw upon for their varied experiences, insights and news reports. The ultimate result is a less-informed public.
Given the wide reach of the Internet and the great number of websites and blogs that discuss wars and politics, Cohen said, “The problem may be that we have too much information” about the Afghanistan/Pakistan war. Most of this information, though, “lacks context and is repetitive of what others are reporting.” With the Internet, “everyone is a reporter,” but since so little original reporting is being done in Afghanistan and Pakistan, given the small number of reporters there, the Internet bloggers derive their commentaries from very few first-hand journalistic sources and often feed off one another.
Drawing upon his own observations as a South Asia advisor in the State Department in the late 1980s, Cohen said reporters are often provided a lot of “disinformation” by the military and government officials – and that such would be the case in the war in Afghanistan. The press, especially in a war setting, tends to cover events the way the government presents them.
”When I worked for the State Department,” Cohen said, “half of what I read in the press was wrong” about issues he was familiar with. Since then, he said he still feels that “50 percent of what I read is wrong,” but “now I don’t know which half.”
Cohen also gave high marks to Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, who he said “does a good job of reporting the news as well as offering context” on Afghanistan, and to the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable (who has covered Afghanistan, Pakistan and India since 1999), and McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, national security and intelligence correspondent who reports on the war from Afghanistan and from the United States.
Gall has covered the war for its entire 10 years but will be taking time off to be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard this school year. She has seen the fluctuation in Afghanistan news coverage over the years. As she told Nieman Watchdog:
“The general pattern was that everyone was here in 2001-early 2002, then the networks left in the spring of 2002,” as did her Times colleague John Burns, who went to Iraq as the Bush-Cheney administration and the U.K.’s Prime Minister Tony Blair began to ramp up the war rhetoric against Saddam Hussein.
“They only really came back in force in 2009 and 2010 for the surge and the emphasis placed on Afghanistan by President Obama,” Gall said. “The BBC and wire agencies always had a presence. Newspapers kept a varying level of coverage. Most had a regional correspondent, few spent as much as the New York Times on a permanent bureau.”
American Journalism Review reported that in mid-2003 only a “handful” of reporters remained in Afghanistan, “while other newspapers floated correspondents in and out when time and resources permitted.” Those with full-time reporters or stringers then were the New York Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, NBC News/MSNBC and National Public Radio. By January 2004, with the Iraq war having moved to center stage and with most war correspondents having relocated there, only five news organizations still had a full-time Afghanistan presence – the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Associated Press and ABC. By early 2005, the magazine reported, only the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek and the Associated Press had full-time reporters there, while television networks had “nearly disappeared.”
Douglas Jehl, The Washington Post’s foreign editor, told Nieman Watchdog that his newspaper “has had a near-constant presence in Afghanistan since the American-led invasion of 2001, though there may have been gaps of several months. For most of that time, a Post correspondent based in Kabul was responsible for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2007 and 2008, we moved the bureau to Islamabad (Pakistan), and correspondents covered both countries from there.” Then, as Obama came into office and ordered an escalation of the war, the Post moved its regional bureau back to Kabul. Early last year, Jehl said, the Post established a separate Islamabad bureau, and “since then, we have maintained bureaus in both places.”
As for the cost factor, Jehl said he would “prefer not to talk about budgets, except to say that covering foreign news is expensive.” In Afghanistan, for example, the Post’s bureau chief Josh Partlow’s staff “includes local hires who assist with reporting, translation and other tasks.” When we threw out the figure $800,000-plus, which someone with knowledge of the Washington Post’s Afghanistan bureau had suggested, Post spokesperson Kris Coratti declined comment.
That figure seems at least in the ballpark, since one knowledgeable correspondent in 2007 put the figure for an Iraq bureau at approximately $1 million. In a thoughtful and informative February 2007 piece on the “demise of the foreign correspondent,” the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable noted that at that time it cost some $250,000 a year to maintain a typical overseas bureau, but that “a large security-conscious news operation in a city such as Baghdad can hemorrhage four times that” – that is, $1 million. Constable has been a foreign correspondent for the Post and other newspapers since 1983, reporting from Latin America, Haiti, the Philippines, and India, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Why do overseas correspondents matter? In her article, Constable laid out the valuable service a first-rate correspondent can render in wartime, filling “an important niche between television [news] and academe, offering an accessible way for busy people to learn about distant events.”
Wrote Constable: “Today, Americans’ need to understand the struggles of distant peoples is greater than ever. Our troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we did not know enough about when we invaded them and that we are still trying to fathom. We have been victimized by foreign terrorists, yet we still cannot imagine why anyone would hate us. Our economy is intimately linked to global markets…Knowing about the world is not a luxury; it is an urgent necessity. But instead of stepping up coverage of international affairs, American newspapers and television networks are steadily cutting back.”
Constable went on to say that television’s coverage of world news “is increasingly selective as well as superficial.” She cited approvingly a February 2007 speech by the late, iconic TV news anchor Walter Cronkite in which Cronkite warned that the pressure on media companies to maximize profits was, in Constable’s words, “threatening our nation’s values and freedom by leaving people less informed.” Cronkite observed that in a complicated world, “the need for high-quality reporting is greater than ever. It’s not just the journalist’s job at risk here. It’s American democracy.”
Next: There is no substitute for on-the-scene, or close at-hand, reporting. One example is the excellent follow-up to the Aug. 5th Chinook helicopter disaster by the New York Times and a few others. But where is the rest of the press?
John Hanrahan is a former executive director of The Fund for Investigative Journalism and reporter for The Washington Post, The Washington Star, UPI, and other news organizations. He is now on special assignment for Nieman Watchdog. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org