Published: December 19, 2010
As the Obama administration conducted an Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy review this month, the news media did too, and the coverage came peppered with question marks.
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.
One senior foreign correspondent for television, when told of the 4 percent coverage figure, said he was impressed — given the relatively small contingent of foreign journalists in Afghanistan.
“There are like seven of us there,” remarked the correspondent, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to call into question his network’s commitment to the war. Those who are there have done courageous work, exposing corruption and documenting military progress in rooting out insurgents.
The low levels of coverage reflect the limitations on news-gathering budgets and, some say, low levels of interest in the war among the public. About a quarter of Americans follow news about Afghanistan closely, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
“Inside the United States, you’ve got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue,” said Tony Maddox, who oversees international coverage for CNN.
Mr. Maddox said CNN had “worked very hard” to make the war resonate with viewers, sometimes through human interest stories. “It’s always the eternal challenge in terms of international coverage: making the important interesting,” he said.
As President Obama signaled last year that he would wind down the war in Iraq and refocus attention on Afghanistan, television networks largely withdrew from Baghdad, and moved staff to the Afghan capital, Kabul, though not on an equivalent basis. Newspapers and wire services also bulked up in Kabul.
American networks each generally have one correspondent in Kabul at all times, sometimes working on a freelance basis. The office space in Kabul is a home base for occasional visits by anchors, like Lester Holt of NBC, who spent Thanksgiving there, and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, who interviewed Gen. David H. Petraeus there two weeks ago.
Of the cable news networks, Greta Van Susteren of Fox News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC also spent time in the country this year.
But there is no doubt that cutbacks by media companies have affected the way that the war is transmitted to American living rooms. ABC News cut roughly 25 percent of its work force last spring, and last summer, CBS News laid off most of its camera crews based in London, the jumping-off point for international coverage.
“There’s a general drive to do everything with less,” said another television correspondent, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to comment publicly.
At the same time, there are pockets of noteworthy coverage, including by national newspapers, the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” and the AfPak Channel, a Web site from Foreign Policy magazine and the New America Foundation. In July, The New York Times and several other news organizations published portions of the military and intelligence reports about the war made public by WikiLeaks, garnering widespread attention.
On the ground, the war remains a dangerous assignment for journalists. In January, Rupert Hamer of the British newspaper The Sunday Mirror was killed while traveling with the military near Nawa. In June, James P. Hunter, a staff sergeant and a writer, was killed in Kandahar. The Committee to Protect Journalists said he was the first Army journalist killed in action in Afghanistan since the war started nine years ago. And Joao Silva, a photographer for The Times, sustained critical injuries in a late October bomb blast in southern Afghanistan.
This year, American economic concerns, the midterm elections and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico each earned more than twice as much news media attention as the war, according to the Pew assessment, which comes from a weekly study of the nation’s major newspapers, radio and television newscasts, and major news Web sites.
The study started in 2007. In that year, Afghanistan — which was a relatively low-grade conflict at the time, with many fewer allied causalities — accounted for only 1 percent of the nation’s news coverage. The same held true in 2008. The coverage picked up markedly at the end of 2009, when Mr. Obama conducted a lengthy review of Afghanistan strategy, but still added up to only 5 percent for the year.
Four or 5 percent “may be the baseline, at least for now, no matter what the strategic stakes are, or even as U.S. involvement ratchets up,” Mr. Jurkowitz said.
This year, Mr. Jurkowitz estimated, roughly half of the coverage of Afghanistan actually emanated from the war zone. That suggests that “without a major Washington policy debate or strategy review ongoing, that Afghanistan remains a story that gets modest coverage,” he said.
Modest, with question marks. When the CNN host Eliot Spitzer asked on Thursday night, “Why are we even there,” his guests had few answers.
The skepticism was noticeable this month when ABC conducted another of its checkups on the war. The Emmy-winning series was titled “Where Things Stand” when it was started in 2004 for Iraq, but this month, for Afghanistan, it was renamed “Can We Win?”
Tom Nagorski, the foreign managing editor for ABC News, said it was not a political statement or change in tone; rather, it reflected the fact that Mr. Obama’s strategic review was under way. “It’s a chance to bring some great, old-fashioned, terrific reporting to bear,” he said.
Privately, some television executives say the Afghanistan coverage is an outgrowth of the self-evaluations made by news organizations in the wake of the Iraq war, when many were faulted for not broadcasting sufficient skepticism.
At the same time, there are antiwar voices who say the news media has been “compliant” with regard to Afghanistan — the word that Joe Scarborough used on Friday on his MSNBC program, “Morning Joe.”
He asked Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, “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?”
Mr. Haass said he feared that Mr. Scarborough was right. “I think history’s going to be brutal on the questions that haven’t been asked.” Or, alternatively, the answers that haven’t been heard.