Of the cable news channels, MSNBC has the most progressive image, based largely on the persona of now-fired anchor Keith Olbermann, but also reflecting the presence of hosts like Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and Olbermann’s replacement Lawrence O’Donnell. To test how much this left-leaning reputation actually reflects the content of MSNBC’s news, Extra! looked at the network’s coverage of the Afghan War on four primetime shows—Schultz’s Ed Show, Olbermann’s Countdown, the Rachel Maddow Show and O’Donnell’s Last Word—from July 2010 through December 2010.
Extra! counted all sources interviewed by MSNBC about Afghanistan, excluding taped soundbites pulled from other sources. Commentary segments by the hosts were counted, while passing mentions of Afghanistan in segments about other subjects were not included. (For example, during a discussion of the economy, a suggestion that withdrawal, among other things, could help address the budget deficit would not be counted.)
Of the four shows, Maddow covered the war by far the most, doing 63 segments on Afghanistan; the host actually went to the country during the study period, in July 2010. Despite this opportunity to incorporate diverse Afghan perspectives, the show’s sources remained largely male and American: Out of 75 identifiable sources over six months, 57 were American men. Maddow featured only eight Afghan voices (all men), four of whom were from the Afghan military. (One was a former prisoner at Bagram—7/6/10—who appeared on a segment about how much better Pentagon-built prisons in Afghanistan are now.)
The only woman talking about Afghanistan on the Maddow show, apart from Maddow herself, was the U.S. Army’s Gen. Anne Macdonald, who appeared twice.
All but five of Maddow’s identifiable sources had military or government affiliations or were journalists. Military-affiliated sources (both U.S. and Afghan) accounted for the greatest number of guests, making 36 appearances. Journalists made 22 appearances, the majority of which were segments with NBC’s Richard Engel, who served as Maddow’s primary source during the host’s visit to Afghanistan. Nine appearances were made by U.S. and Afghan government officials, with special envoy Richard Holbrooke accounting for six of these.
Much of Maddow’s coverage centered around whether the U.S. should withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan, and if so when. The host’s own position came close to a pro-withdrawal position, without quite getting there (7/15/10):
If we think there’s a future in which the Afghan government is real and it runs and controls that country to the exclusion of the Taliban, and it’s there because we have made that possible, then there is an American national security interest in us still being there.... But if you believe that our actions, our American actions in 2010 cannot make it more likely that there’s a real Afghan government, that there’s a real government in Afghanistan, then asking Americans to die in Afghanistan is wrong.... That’s the choice.
While in Afghanistan, rather than talking to civilians, Maddow overwhelmingly interviewed military officials, seeking their take on why the U.S. military is in Afghanistan (7/6/10): “We owe it to them [the soldiers] to try to understand what their lives are like at war—what’s being asked of them and what’s the strategic justification for why we’re putting them through this.”
She reported on various tasks of the military, such as checkpoints. At one point, Maddow (7/14/10) even engaged in a discussion with U.S. soldiers about which weapon they prefer:
MADDOW: Yes, what do you think?
SGT. YERIAL BARBOSA: M-4.
MADDOW: You would have M-4? How come?... Do you have a romantic attachment to the M-4?
BARBOSA: Usually M-4s are more accurate than AK-47s.
MADDOW: Two American soldiers there with two different perspectives. One said he’d prefer an AK. One said he’d prefer the weapon he has. Rightful politics.
The show also aired footage of Maddow receiving firearm instruction (7/7/10, 7/9/10) and buying a carpet with a gun design in an Afghan market (7/16/10).
Maddow’s enthusiasm for the military shouldn’t be too surprising, despite her generally leftist politics. “I’m a national security liberal, which I tell people because it’s meant to sound absurd,” she told the New York Times (7/17/08). “I’m all about counterterrorism. I’m all about the G.I. Bill.”
Olbermann’s Countdown was significantly more critical of the Afghan War than Maddow was, though he covered it much less. His sources were also quite narrow: Olbermann’s 18 segments about Afghanistan included 24 sources, only six of whom were not white American men, and no Afghans made it on the show. Journalists made 10 appearances, while current and former government and military officials made six.
Some of Olbermann’s guests were quite critical of the war, such as Democratic California Rep. Lynn Woolsey (7/27/10):
I’d be bringing our troops home now. I’d be planning right now how to start bringing them out of there safely, and certainly pay to get them home. And then I’d be sending a surge of civilians to Afghanistan, so that we could be working with the Afghan people so that they don’t prefer the Taliban over Americans.
Much of his coverage focused on the Wikileaks Afghanistan cables and their impact (e.g., 7/26/10, 12/10/10), and how a Florida pastor’s proposed Quran burning in September affected relations with Afghans (8/30/10, 9/7-9/10).
Lawrence O’Donnell hosted a handful of Countdown’s episodes on Afghanistan. But on O’Donnell’s own show—which moved in to fill Olbermann’s vacated slot on January 21, 2011—he almost completely ignored the war during the six-month study period, covering it only twice. Both segments featured Beltway guests—Joe Biden (9/27/10) and Bob Woodward (9/29/10)—arguing that Obama’s Afghanistan strategy was better than Bush’s.
Schultz’s Ed Show covered Afghanistan nine times, including 10 guests. Schultz has spoken out forcefully against the war (“Today marks the start of our 10th year of combat operations in Afghanistan. It needs to end now.”—10/7/10), and his show featured both opposition and pro-war perspectives. Notably, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D.-Ohio) was a guest on July 27, and progressive filmmaker Robert Greenwald, director of Rethink Afghanistan, appeared three times. As with Olbermann, however, his sources were predominantly white American men (12 of 15), and no Afghans or other non-U.S. sources appeared.
The majority of primetime coverage on cable’s “liberal” network seemed more interested in boosting the military than questioning the Afghan War, and one of the two shows that more frequently challenged the war has since been replaced by a show with a history of barely touching the issue. The nearly 10-year-old conflict costs some $2 billion a week and has caused the deaths of over 1,500 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Afghans. A majority of the U.S. public favors withdrawal, and yet that perspective still can’t find a solid foothold on cable news.
Maddow once told the American Prospect (10/08) that the corporate media doesn’t have a conservative bias: “If you can make it interesting, the mainstream media is interested in it.” Fortunately for Maddow’s career, her definition of interesting, when it comes to the crucial issue of the Afghan War, seems to align neatly with a corporate media that isn’t interested in mounting a real challenge to the military status quo.