Media Withdraws From Covering Complex Afghan War

There were many remarkable things about the war in Afghanistan this year. It was the deadliest year by far for both U.S. troops and for the entire coalition, with 700 troops now killed since Jan. 1, 2010, up from a previous high of 591 last year. President Obama dismissed the general in charge of the war halfway through this year. WikiLeaks dumped 77,000 reports covering six years of the war. And just last week, the Obama administration released a much-anticipated strategy review.

Despite these developments, however, the media has devoted only four percent of its coverage this year to the war, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. The New York Times reports that low public interest in the war, along with the very complicated nature of the conflict, likely explains the dearth of coverage:

The same week that ABC News scheduled a series of segments titled “Afghanistan: Can We Win?,” Katie Couric of the “CBS Evening News” devoted six minutes to a special report, “Can This War Be Won?” A recent headline atop New York magazine repeated a question asked by dozens of opinion writers this year — and last year, and the year before — “Why Are We in Afghanistan?

The questions reflect the complex nature of the Afghan war, and of the news coverage. The grueling war there, where a day rarely goes by without an allied casualty, is like a faint heartbeat, accounting for just 4 percent of the nation’s news coverage in major outlets through early December, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center. That is down slightly from last year, when the war accounted for 5 percent.

“It’s never passed the threshold to be a big story week in, week out for Americans,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the associate director of the project.

Journalists interviewed by the Times blamed, in part, news budgets that simply didn’t have the money for Afghanistan coverage. “There are like seven of us there,” remarked one correspondent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to call into question his network’s commitment to the war. Other journalists blamed a lack of public interest. Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN, said that “[i]nside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue.”


Voices from Afghanistan are notably absent from the minimal coverage that does exist. A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post, ABC News and others found that Afghans are more pessimistic about the direction of their country and less confident in the ability of the United States to provide security, and just as notable as these findings was the fact that any news outlet bothered to ask. Elizabeth Rubin, a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine, notes that most foreign correspondents do not speak Afghan languages and have little understanding of local cultures, which hampers their ability to assess the Afghan perspective. One reporter for Radio Free Europe, who does speak Pashto, Urdu, and several other regional languages, writes that there are “a series of issues where Afghans see Western media covering their country through the lens of their own national interests.”

A complex war is hardly a reason to draw back coverage — just the opposite. The war costs taxpayers $160 billion each year, and as noted, the costs in human life continue to mount. None other than Joe Scarborough recently wondered if the low levels of media coverage are damaging the public’s ability to evaluate the direction and necessity of the war. “For years, we have had journalists wringing their hands and editorialists lashing out at the profession for not asking the tough questions leading up to Iraq. Ten years from now, won’t we be saying the same thing about Afghanistan?” Scarborough asked Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign relations, during a recent show. Mr. Haass replied: “I think history’s going to be brutal on the questions that haven’t been asked.”