A case in point came Monday, amid the fall of Kabul, when top conservative figures and media outlets sought to distort the words of a CNN reporter accurately summarizing the situation from the streets of the Afghan capital. They tried to turn it into something amounting to a corporate-media endorsement of the Taliban.
At issue is a report that ran Monday from CNN’s Clarissa Ward. In it, Ward noted the discordant scenes she was witnessing:
This is a sight I honestly thought I would never see: Scores of Taliban fighters and just behind us, the U.S. Embassy compound. Some carry American weapons. They tell us they’re here to maintain law and order. Everything is under control. Everything will be fine, the commander says. Nobody should worry.What’s your message to America right now? America already spent enough time in Afghanistan. They need to leave, he tells us. They already lost lots of lives and lots of money.People come up to them to pose for photographs. They’re just chanting death to America, but they seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.
If you can pick out the part that certain folks found objectionable in all of that, congratulations. It’s this: “They’re just chanting death to America, but they seem friendly at the same time.”
Conservative outlets and social media accounts quickly posted the quote and the video, while conveniently leaving off the “It’s utterly bizarre” part. And soon, it was picked up by high-profile Republicans.
The purpose of the truncated quote, in case it wasn’t clear, was to draw a parallel to the scenes of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Back then, conservatives accused the media of obscuring the amount of violence involved. At one point, a CNN reporter stood in front of fires that had been set in Kenosha, Wis., above the chyron, “Fiery but mostly peaceful protests after police shooting.” (CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has said the chyron was “probably a mistake.”)
Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) made the comparison explicit.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has upped the trolling on his Twitter account in the months since Donald Trump was ousted from the White House, went further than most anyone of significant stature, accusing CNN of siding with the Taliban.
“Is there an enemy of America for whom @CNN WON’T cheerlead?” Cruz said.
He added: “(In mandatory burqas, no less.)” Ward was wearing a hijab, not a burqa, which covers one’s face. Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), who is running for Senate, also attacked Ward for covering her head.
The media invites criticism in its coverage of many issues, including hot-button social issues like racial justice. But this is taking things to a whole other level. The accusation is apparently not just that CNN sympathizes with those who got violent at American protests but also … the Taliban? We really think a CNN reporter is rooting for — or even just excusing — the Taliban? That’s the argument? How unserious has our dialogue become when that’s an actual allegation from a U.S. senator?
It’s also an utterly and transparently bogus one.
For one, saying people “seem friendly” doesn’t mean you believe they are. Ward’s reference was clearly to scenes that made no sense. The Taliban has tried to suggest it will govern in a more moderate manner on issues like women’s rights than most expect. Sometimes a reporter’s job is to, well, report on what they are seeing. If violent radicals are putting on a show that doesn’t make logical sense, you report on the disconnect.
The rest of Ward’s report is also anything but laudatory. To wit, here’s what came right after the “seem friendly” part:
WARD: At the presidential palace, the Taliban are now guarding the gate. They say they’re here to fill the vacuum left when the government fled. But the welcoming spirit only extends so far and my presence soon creates tension.UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's because of you.WARD: They’ve just told me to stand to the side because I’m a woman.
And this later on:
WARD: And that profound sense of anxiety, I think you may not see it on the streets, but it’s the people who aren’t on the streets today that, in some ways, are the real story — the people that are hiding in their homes, who are petrified to go out, who are worried about being targeted, who fear for their lives, who are too scared to tell their stories. But their stories must be told because in this moment their fear and their desperation is so real as we saw with those extraordinary images coming from the airport that I don’t think any of us will be able to forget any time soon.
Ward then noted that she had put on a hijab because of the environment around her and that she was seeing many women — far fewer in total than she used to see in public — doing the same.
“Obviously, I am dressed in a very different way to how I would normally dress to walk down the streets of Kabul,” she said.
Head coverings are relatively standard for female reporters covering areas like Afghanistan, particularly when religious extremists are in charge. You do what you can to get the story and to avoid further imperiling yourself on an already-perilous assignment. What’s more, Ward noted the she has always worn a headscarf on the streets of Afghanistan.
Even if you set aside Cruz speciously accusing her of rooting for the Taliban, the fact that he and others attack her for this pretty much gives away the game. In fact, to borrow a phrase, it’s utterly bizarre.