And when news consumers have been tuned out of a story — as they are, unfortunately, with most international coverage — this quick-take journalism can be damaging and misleading.
Evidence of this nuance-deprived, overstated coverage was obvious throughout big and small news organizations over the weekend and across the political spectrum.
Here’s the predictable headline on Miranda Devine’s column in the Murdoch-owned New York Post: “Joe Biden’s defeat in Afghanistan will echo for eternity.” She trashes Biden — “the reverse Midas touch” in all things so far — and admiringly quotes former president Donald Trump on what a great job he would have done. (It does seem like he had his chances, though, doesn’t it?) There it is: the loser and the forever, would-be winner.
In the much more left-leaning Atlantic, here’s the headline on George Packer’s analysis: “Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy.”
Axios, the digital, short-bite news site, gleefully joined the party: “Rarely has an American president’s predictions been so wrong, so fast, so convincingly as Biden on Afghanistan.”
And when I picked up the print edition of what is (for a few summer weeks) my local daily newspaper, the Buffalo News, the front-page headline was a slightly more restrained echo: “Afghanistan collapse could leave indelible stain on Biden legacy.”
The truth is quite a bit more complicated than all of that, and once you get past the headlines, some of the coverage — including Packer’s — reflects that. But for an American public that largely ignores serious international news short of a bona fide crisis, this will be the enduring takeaway.
The situation is tragic, no doubt, and the images of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul on Sunday are stunningly memorable, but the blame has to be spread much more evenly. Biden has been in office for just over seven months; the always untenable Afghan war — and its sure-to-be-terrible ending — has been a disaster for decades. It cuts across political parties: begun by a Republican, George W. Bush, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and presided over by two Obama terms and four years of Trump.
Throughout, the American government has lied to the American people about how well things were going in America’s longest war, as The Washington Post’s important 2019 project, “The Afghanistan Papers,” made abundantly clear. Sometimes compared to the Pentagon Papers that chronicled a secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, it relied on more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and lawsuits to drive home its conclusion.
“Senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”
The project, now the basis of a new book by Post reporter Craig Whitlock, won a George Polk award last year. It was snubbed by the Pulitzer Prize board. Inside baseball, perhaps, but then again, a Pulitzer Prize might have given these vital revelations more public attention and that in turn might have helped provide the necessary bedrock of historical context right now.
All of what the project lays bare, of course, occurred well before Biden was elected, making it even more of a stretch to lay the whole travesty at his feet.
Has the Biden administration badly handled the ending? Yes, and that deserves to be pointed out unsparingly, as David Sanger did in the New York Times: “Even many of Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal.”
What’s not fair, though, is scolding punditry like the piece on the Fox News site by August Pfluger, the Republican congressman from Texas and an Air Force veteran, who characterizes the “Biden doctrine” as “Hear no evil, see no evil, stop no evil.”
You can chalk that up to sheer partisanship, of course, but so far there’s not enough thoughtful, context-rich news coverage to counter it. And so a false idea can take root:
That a war that cost trillions over two decades, killed many thousands, and was destined for failure from the start is the sole fault of the president who — hamstrung by all that came before him — was the one to end it.
As always, the media moves too quickly to the blame game, allowing the most extreme punditry to carry the day. When history is in the making, as it surely is here, that’s far from the best approach.
Maybe the pullout from Afghanistan really will go down as Biden’s Waterloo. But maybe deciding that should take more than a few hours.
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