This week, as the Afghan War entered its 10th year, there were the usual retrospectives in the media, as well as calls to rethink the war. What’s striking, though, is how little thinking media did about the war in the first place.
–Some pundits were calling for indiscriminate attacks before the Afghanistan War even started, as FAIR noted (9/21/01):
“This is a very primitive country. And taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard. Remember, the people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. The Germans were responsible for Hitler. The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”
–Early anti-war protests were barely covered– and when they were the results were often abysmal, as FAIR noted in an Action Alert (10/2/01) about the New York Times‘ coverage:
The next day (10/1/10), the Times ran a slightly longer story about the second day of protests on page B7. The photo that accompanied the story, however, was dominated by a sign held by one of the counter-demonstrators: “Osama Thanks Fellow Cowards for Your Support.”
–Some outlets were ready to accept government “guidance” on how to practice journalism (FAIR Press Release, 10/12/01):
On October 10, television network executives from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN held a conference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and apparently acceded to her “suggestion” that any future taped statements from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda group be “abridged,” and any potentially “inflammatory” language removed before broadcast.
—CNN decided that the U.S. public should not see images of dead Afghan civilians (FAIR Action Alert, 11/1/01):
Post media reporter Howard Kurtz quotes a memo from Isaacson to CNN‘s international correspondents: “As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people.”
A week later, FAIR noted (11/8/01):
The host of Fox News Channel‘s Special Report With Brit Hume (11/5/01) recently wondered why journalists should bother covering civilian deaths at all. “The question I have,” said Hume, “is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they’ve been?”
–As a FAIR Action Alert (11/2/01) noted, newspaper opinion pages offered “little space for dissent to the military line”:
These problems changed very little as the war went on. Media outlets went from downplaying Afghan civilian deaths to explaining them away (Extra! Update, 8/07):
Later coverage tended to present new explanations for the same problem (Extra!, 6/09):
And the spectrum of debate scarcely improved, as FAIR noted (Action Alert, 8/25/09):
With new polls showing the American public becoming increasingly critical of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the Sunday morning network talkshows turned primarily to Pentagon officials and war boosters to discuss the issue, continuing the media marginalization of critics of the escalation of the war (Extra!, 4/09).
Another FAIR study of op-ed page debate (Extra!, 12/09) in the first 10 months of 2009 showed that newspapers were still ignoring majority opinion:
In the Washington Post, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns by more than 10 to 1: Of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views. Of the pro-war columns, 31 were for escalation and 30 for an alternative strategy.
Some pundits grew tired of the supposedly excessive debate over the Afghanistan surge. The Washington Post‘s David Broder earned a “P.U.-Litzer Prize” from FAIR in 2009 (12/22/09):
That lack of debate continues up to the present, as FAIR pointed out in an August 18 Action Alert, “Tell NBC: Sunday Morning Needs a Real War Debate”:
Those recent scandals seemed unable to move the media debate. When the website WikiLeaks posted thousands of classified documents relating to the Afghan War, much of the media reaction was dedicated to downplaying the story, or seeing it as an opportunity for the White House to bolster public support for the war (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/30/10):
Another Post story, headlined “WikiLeaks Documents Cause Little Concern Over Public Perception of War,” suggested that the White House and Congress were trying to turn the leaks into “an affirmation of the president’s decision to shift strategy and boost troop levels in the nearly nine-year-long war.”
The reaction was similar to the media’s response to a Rolling Stone report (6/22/10) about Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The ensuing controversy, which led the White House to replace McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus, was cheered as a sign that the White House was sticking with its war plan (FAIR Media Advisory, 6/25/10):