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Afghans gather around a car incinerated by a U.S. drone strike

Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle hit by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan on August 30, 2021. (Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Missing Voices in Broadcast Coverage of Afghan Withdrawal

Corporate journalists overwhelmingly leaned on government and military sources, while offering no clear antiwar voices and vanishingly few perspectives from civil society leaders in either Afghanistan or the United States.

As the US after 20 years finally began its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the story dominated TV news. Just as they did when the war began (Extra!, 11–12/01), corporate journalists overwhelmingly leaned on government and military sources, while offering no clear antiwar voices and vanishingly few perspectives from civil society leaders in either Afghanistan or the United States.

FAIR studied a week of Afghanistan coverage (8/15–21/21), starting with the day the Taliban took back Kabul. We looked at the three primetime broadcast news shows, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, identifying 74 sources across the three shows.

Who got to speak?

Of these sources, 23 sources were Afghans (20) or identified as Afghan Americans (3)—31% of all sources. Only 11 of these 23—fewer than half—were identified by at least a first name, and only four were women. (Afghans often have only one name.) While three Afghan sources were identified as professionals who might have offered informed commentary on the broader political or historical situation—a journalist, a member of parliament and a nonprofit director—the vast majority of questions to all Afghan and Afghan American sources were about their personal risk and situation, essentially providing “color” rather than expert opinion to the story.

Americans who were not Afghans comprised the remaining 51 sources, with no other nationalities represented. Of these US sources, 31 were non-Pentagon government officials, and 16 were current or former military, from the secretary of Defense to enlisted soldiers. The remainder were three parents of Americans killed in the war, and a non-Afghan US citizen evacuating from Afghanistan.

The partisan breakdown of US officials was 29 Democrats to eight Republicans, with President Joe Biden accounting for 14 of the Democratic sources, and other members of his administration accounting for 12.

No scholars or antiwar activists from either the US or Afghanistan were featured. Only two civil society leaders made appearances: the director of a nonprofit women’s organization in Afghanistan (8/16/21) and the president of a New York City veterans’ organization (8/16/21).

Despite the media’s emphasis on the plight of women in Afghanistan as a result of US withdrawal (FAIR.org, 8/23/21), women were rarely considered experts, or even voices worth hearing on this story: Only eight sources were female (11% of the total), two of whom were unnamed.

No independent defense of withdrawal 

Biden, who played a key role in leading the country into the Iraq War (FAIR.org, 1/9/20), was essentially the strongest “antiwar” voice in the conversation. While he and his administration frequently defended their decision to uphold the withdrawal agreement, there were no other sources who did so.

Of the three non-administration Democratic sources, two encouraged an extension of the withdrawal deadline. All of the Republican sources criticized either the commitment to or the process of withdrawal. Most of the remaining sources were also critical of the process.

The final days of the occupation were without question chaotic. But by only featuring sources who emphasized the “stain” on the US’s “reputation” (Sen. Mitch McConnell, NBC, 8/16/21), or the idea that “the Americans left us behind, and left us to those people who are not human and cut our heads off in front of our families” (Abdul, ABC, 8/20/21), a discussion of the tragedy of the 20-year occupation itself was completely foreclosed.

Journalists’ continued jingoism

And corporate journalists themselves, who have often been the loudest cheerleaders for the Afghanistan War (e.g., FAIR.org, 9/17/01, 8/25/09, 1/31/19), continued their jingoism in the face of the withdrawal.

NBC‘s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel (8/16/21), for instance, offered an echo of—rather than a counterpoint to—McConnell and Abdul: “A 20-year war, the longest in US history, today ended a disgrace. The US leaving behind a country its citizens are too terrified to live in.”

Similarly, CBS‘s Norah O’Donnell (8/16/21) declared: “When America leaves, for many, so does the hope—the hope of freedom, the hope for human rights. And in its place comes the sheer terror of what’s next.” O’Donnell went on to detail the number of Americans killed and wounded, plus the unspecified “cost to America’s national security.”

Given that the withdrawal was an acknowledgement that after 20 years of occupation, the US had little control over what kind of country it would be “leaving behind,” it’s hard to imagine a withdrawal that Engel would not have considered a disgrace. But while he and O’Donnell highlighted the plight of “many” Afghans, neither made any mention of the number of Afghans killed and wounded in the 20-year war, which was at least 27 times higher than US casualties, according to the Costs of War project (9/1/21) at Brown University. That project estimated at least 46,000 Afghan civilians were killed, including more than 500 humanitarian workers and journalists, along with over 69,000 national military and police and more than 52,000 opposition fighters.

But these tallies—which do not even include the wounded, or excess (indirect) deaths—are almost certainly undercounts. New Yorker reporter Anand Gopal, who has spent years covering the war, including time in rural Afghanistan, believes that the available death tolls have “grossly undercounted” civilian casualties, as much of the ongoing conflict has taken place in outlying areas where deaths frequently go unrecorded (Democracy Now!, 9/16/21).

Gopal’s recent article (New Yorker, 9/13/21) on rural Afghan women recounted his investigation in the largely rural Helmand province, where he interviewed a random selection of 12 households, finding that each had lost, on average, 10 to 12 civilians to the war. While Taliban rule was not popular among those he interviewed, it was clearly preferred to US occupation, which had empowered even more ruthless warlords and ensured unending conflict, airstrikes and terror in the region.

This perspective was not to be found on US TV news coverage of the withdrawal, with its correspondents reporting from the airbase in Kabul, an Afghanistan a world apart from that known by the majority of the country’s population.

Rosy picture of occupation

NBC‘s Lester Holt (8/16/21), who visited Afghanistan in 2010 and 2012, offered a typical assessment, painting the occupation as a sensitive operation bringing Afghanistan out of darkness into a brighter future:

Traveling across Afghanistan a decade into the war [2012], it was hard not to feel some optimism, as if we were witness to a country emerging from darkness…. Through the war, epic American-led battles reclaim cities and villages from the Taliban. US commanders nurture trust among village elders believing in Afghanistan’s future. And now, in the chaos, we’re left to wonder how that future has been so rapidly rewritten with chapters from Afghanistan’s past.

Two weeks later, on the eve of the official withdrawal, CBS‘s O’Donnell (8/30/21) asked longtime Pentagon correspondent David Martin, “What does this moment mean?” Martin responded:

To me, it’s on all of us. All of us as American citizens. We as a country could not summon the will to outlast the Taliban. We sent more than 800,000 troops to fight in the war. The vast majority of them did everything we asked of them. They would have gone back for another 20 years if we had asked them. But the country grew tired of the war, and they elected political leaders, both Democratic and Republican, who wanted to end it. History will decide whether that was right or wrong. But either way, Norah, it’s on us.

O’Donnell herself (CBS, 8/26/21) painted a rosy picture of the occupation a few days prior :

This is what American troops were doing before terrorists struck today: feeding children, playing with kids, lending an arm to the elderly. The American military is the greatest in the world, not only because of its superior force, but because of its humanity—soldiers providing a helping hand, pulling Afghan infants to safety. This child kept warm by the uniform of a US soldier during her evacuation. This mother delivered her baby in the cargo bay of a C-17, naming the newborn Reach, after the call sign of the aircraft that rescued her.

For the last two decades, our mission has been about keeping us safe at home and improving the lives of Afghans. The 13 US service members who made the ultimate sacrifice today did not die in vain. One hundred thousand people have been evacuated because of their heroic actions. They answered the call and did what they were trained to do. A reminder of the high price of freedom. And God bless our US troops.

Obviously, the families of the thousands of Afghan civilians killed in US airstrikes—many of them children—or those victimized by rogue soldiers, might have a different perspective on the US military. Those voices, too, might have helped explain to journalists like Holt, and his viewers, why Afghanistan’s future looks the way it does, rather than the rosy, peaceful outcome those journalists seem to have expected the US to have supplied.

Veteran voices

The perspectives of US troops were occasionally presented, but segments featuring veterans’ voices seemed largely intended to reassure viewers that the 20-year war was worth it. “Some veterans are thinking, was it worth it? Were our sacrifices worth it?”  O’Donnell (CBS, 8/18/21) said, followed immediately by a soundbite from a veteran: “It was worth it…. We gave Afghanistan two decades of freedom. It made the world a better place.”

Notably, post–9/11 veterans had soured on the war over the past decade. While a 2011 Pew poll found that 50% believed the Afghanistan War had been worth fighting, the outfit’s 2019 poll found that number had dropped to 38%—roughly on par with the general public. Afghanistan veterans were more likely than the general public to support the withdrawal—58% vs. 52%—even after it was well underway and the subject of widespread one-sidedly hostile media coverage (Morning Consult, 9/9/21).


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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