General Hails His Own Success, USA Today Investigation Finds

For a good example of how not to report the Afghan War, check out the lead story in today’s USA Today (2/15/11):

General: Taliban ‘Beaten’ by Surge

Momentum Shifts in Afghanistan

The piece–by Jim Michaels, who has an unfortunate history of this kind of reporting–is mostly sourced to Richard Mills, the Marine general who’s in charge of the fight in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Unsurprisingly, he thinks he’s doing a bang-up job; Michaels’ story begins:

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have beaten the insurgency in an important stronghold of Taliban fighters, though pockets of resistance remain, a U.S. commander said Monday in an interview with USA Today.

Mills provides a variety of self-congratulatory quotes to Michaels: “This is really the heart of the insurgency…. I believe they have been beaten.”… “They’ve suffered defeat after defeat on the battlefield.”… “You saw a population that turned on the Taliban.”

But surely USA Today doesn’t believe you can make an entire story out of somebody talking about what a good job they’re doing? No, Michaels also turns to a representative of a right-wing think tank to tell you what a good job Mills is doing:

The progress in Helmand province “shows you the momentum is shifting,” said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Loosening the Taliban’s grip on the drug trade “could have a cascading effect in the years ahead,” he said.

Michaels also gets a quote from military analyst Anthony Cordesman, a former McCain aide known for his faithful following of the military line. He cautions that the success in Helmand doesn’t mean that the United States will be able to leave Afghanistan anytime soon: “We haven’t shown that Afghan forces can hold. It’s going to be a couple of years before we know what these accomplishments mean.”

Compare this credulous, boosterish coverage to the approach of Politics Daily‘s David Wood, whose story from yesterday (2/14/11) begins:

The top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, likes to describe the tactical gains his troops are making against insurgents. But a stream of independent data and analysis suggests a wide gap between those battlefield gains and the strategic progress needed to convince a skeptical President Obama, Congress and the public to stay with the war effort for at least three more years.

Rather than relying solely on the military itself and cheerleading analysts to evaluate the state of the war, Wood turns to knowledgeable independent experts, like the NGO Safety Office, a group helping humanitarian groups in Afghanistan, whose report finds “indisputable evidence that the situation is deteriorating.” The full report, which Wood links to, describes the Taliban as “securing new strongholds in the north, west and east of the country,” with “momentum…unaffected by U.S.-led counterinsurgency measures.” The military’s “massive interventions in Helmand and Kandahar,” the report found, “achieved little other than to diversify and diffuse the insurgency.”

Why is this picture so different from the one presented by U.S. military officials? The military’s public pronouncements, explains NGO Safety Office director Nic Lee, “are solely intended to influence American and European public opinion.” Judging by this article, USA Today would seem to have the same intention.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.