August 16, 2021

The news of the weekend was overwhelming.

A devastating earthquake rocked Haiti, killing more than 1,200 and injuring more than 5,700 as a tropical storm headed that way. COVID-19 cases continue to ravage the country with hospitals pushed to and beyond their limits as kids return to school.

Then came the unsettling scenes in Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of Kabul.

On Sunday afternoon, CNN’s Jim Acosta went on the air and said, “After 20 years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars, the entire U.S. military effort is collapsing over the course of a weekend in embarrassing fashion with the type of scenes we haven’t witnessed since the fall of Saigon in Vietnam in 1975.”

So what about the coverage?

On TV, there was one destination for viewers: CNN. In times like these, it’s evident that no U.S. network is more equipped to cover such a major international and national story quite like CNN. Its coverage on Sunday was outstanding, particularly because of the on-scene reporting from the likes of CNN’s international security editor Nick Paton Walsh and chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

Even as Ward was talking on camera from Kabul, viewers could hear gunshots in the background. It was both compelling and frightening, as Ward described chaotic and dangerous scenes of people raiding banks for money and scrambling to find safety.

At one point, Ward was asked if it was safe for her to move from her location to the airport. Ward said, “I think if we were going to the airport right now, that would be ill-advised because it’s dark. If you’re going to the airport now, you’re probably not coming back. For the moment, we would like to continue to report here and we’ve put out lines to the Taliban to that effect, requesting that we be able to continue to do our jobs as journalists. There’s no sense at the moment that Western journalists are being targeted.”

But then Ward quickly pointed out how the same could not be said for Afghan journalists, particularly women.

“They’ve been doing bold and incredible reporting for many years,” Ward said, “and now there’s a very real fear they might face retaliation for that or that, certainly, they won’t be able to do their work anymore.”

While analysis can be valuable to viewers on stories such as this, it also tends to be the laziest of the coverage. It’s easy to line up three or four guests to hand-wring, second-guess and criticize (and, for example, Fox News did plenty of that on Sunday). It’s much more difficult and yet way more beneficial to viewers to emphasize reporting over opinion and hustle over hot takes.

Panels are the best when the topics are how we got here and what happens next as opposed to pointing fingers. Again, that’s where CNN shined above others.

Meanwhile, The New York Times and The Washington Post, in particular, had top-notch coverage from reporters and photojournalists also on the scene. Also, ABC News had a special half-hour report during prime time Sunday night. It was anchored by Linsey Davis with reporting by senior foreign correspondent Ian Pannell, chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, chief Washington correspondent Jonathan Karl and congressional correspondent Rachel Scott.

The Sunday shows

NBC News’ Richard Engel, reporting live from Kabul on Sunday. (Courtesy: NBC News)

How did the Sunday morning shows cover the Afghanistan story? Again, give me reporting over opinion. A fine example of that was NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which had a live report from chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel in Afghanistan.

In a compelling appearance, Engel told moderator Chuck Todd, “People are preparing for the worst. … There’s an increasing sense of lawlessness on the streets. It is intimidating. There has been some looting because you’ve seen a total collapse of the security forces down to local police officers. Some of them are changing out of their uniforms, wearing traditional dress. There have been looters pretending to be Taliban, just going up and ripping guns out of police officers’ hands. So, Afghans are worried about looting. They’re worried about the Taliban’s imminent arrival. They’re already in parts, in pockets of the city. And they’re very angry. They’re angry at the U.S. They’re angry at everybody. They’re angry at the government. And they’re worried.”

About the Taliban, Engel said, “They’ve been fighting against the best military in the world, the U.S. military, for 20 years. That’s how guerrilla groups, insurgencies, get better. They sharpen their knives on the army of their adversaries. And that’s what the Taliban has been doing for 20 years. And they are victorious. They can use this as a recruiting tool.”

Engel’s reporting really showed the impact of what was happening. (His report during Sunday’s “NBC Nightly News,” which included desperate Afghans trying to escape the country out of fear from the Taliban, was powerful and heartbreaking.)

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the Sunday morning rounds and repeated the same version of what he told Todd on “Meet the Press”: “Ultimately, it’s up to the Afghans themselves. It’s up to the Afghan government, it’s up to the Taliban to decide the way forward for the country, including Kabul.”

During an appearance with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union,” Blinken said, “This is not Saigon. We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks that attacked us on 9/11, and we have succeeded in that mission. The objective that we set, bringing those that attacked us to justice, making sure they couldn’t attack us again from Afghanistan, we’ve succeeded in that mission. And in fact, we succeeded a while ago. And at the same time, remaining in Afghanistan for another one, five, 10 years is not in the national interest.”

But presidential historian and CNN contributor Tim Naftali told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield that Sunday did feel like the fall of Saigon. And Naftali spoke about radical Islamic extremism possibly now finding Afghanistan to be a safe haven.

“If that occurs,” Naftali said, “this is the Saigon moment for President Biden, and this will be an albatross around his neck for the rest of time.”

President Joe Biden’s words are already coming back to haunt him. Just last month, Biden said, “The Taliban is not … the North Vietnamese army. … There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of … the United States from Afghanistan. It is not at all comparable.”

It’s a clip that CNN played several times on Sunday.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and New York Times opinion columnist Viet Thanh Nguyen tweeted, “Having literally been in Saigon for the fall of Saigon, it certainly looks like Saigon to me.”

Not everyone was so critical of Biden. Appearing with Acosta on CNN, former California Gov. Jerry Brown said, “Biden was very courageous, and there’s so much hypocrisy. Look, the Afghan war, very soon after we went over there, it was over. … We took out Al Qaeda. We chased after bin Laden. We stayed there too long. Bush should have gotten us out. Obama should have gotten us out, Trump. But they were all afraid of exactly what’s happening. They didn’t have the guts that Joe Biden had.”

More Sunday stuff …

During an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” ABC News chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz blasted the U.S. government, saying it was a “really massive intelligence failure” that it didn’t realize how quickly the Taliban could take over. She added that despite being in Afghanistan for 20 years and being familiar with how the Taliban operates, the U.S. was “caught unaware and completely off guard.”

Other notable moments from Sunday morning included ABC News’ Ian Pannell reporting live from Kabul and Chris Wallace pressing Donald Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo on “Fox News Sunday,” asking “Do you regret giving the Taliban that legitimacy? Do you regret pressing the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners, which they did, some of whom are now back on the battlefield fighting with the Taliban?”

And oh, another topic, CBS’s “Face the Nation” had a good interview with soon-to-be New York Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Other notable work regarding the situation in Afghanistan …

Fox News’ cozy relationship with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions related to school openings and the wearing of masks, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Surfside, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

Doesn’t it seem like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is on Fox News a lot? Well, check this out: From the week of the 2020 election through February, DeSantis was asked on the network 113 times — that’s nearly once a day.

Not only that, but there were times when DeSantis got to pick the topic and even provided the graphics that Fox News could run with his appearance.

These details are all part of terrific work by Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno. Showing the value of Florida’s public records, Contorno collected four months of emails — more than 1,250 pages — between Fox News and the Florida Republican governor.

Contorno wrote, “By turning to DeSantis to fill the many hours of airtime once devoted to former President Donald Trump, Fox has made Florida’s hard-charging leader one of the country’s most recognizable Republicans. That has given DeSantis a leg up on others who may seek the party’s nomination for president in 2024. A recent nationwide poll of Republican voters put DeSantis atop the field if Trump doesn’t run again. No other prospective candidate was close.”

We recently saw the troubling conflict of interest that CNN had when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was shown favorably while appearing on a show hosted by his brother, Chris. Now we see another conflict with Fox News often speaking so glowingly of DeSantis.

One producer wrote to DeSantis’ team that Fox News’ Martha MacCallum was looking to spotlight the stars of the GOP and that she had named DeSantis as one. Another producer wrote, “We see him as the future of the party.”

As far as asking for DeSantis to appear on their network, a Fox News spokesperson told the Times the network “works to secure interviews daily with headliners across the political spectrum which is a basic journalism practice at all news organizations.”

As far as the part about Fox News and DeSantis sharing topics, talking points and graphics before his appearances, Fox News compared it to “pre-interviews with guests to ensure preparedness for the segment. This is a common practice in television and is not unique to FOX News.”

Meanwhile, check out this passage from Contorno’s story: “Since Trump’s defeat, DeSantis is a Fox regular once more. In the first six months of 2021, DeSantis had scheduled as many appearances with top Fox hosts Hannity (8 times), Tucker Carlson (6) and Laura Ingraham (7) as he had meetings with his lieutenant governor, Jeanette Nuñez (7), according to his public calendar. Meanwhile, the governor has not met one-on-one this year with Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, the state’s top public health official, his schedules show.”

It’s also interesting that DeSantis’s appearances leaned heavily toward prime-time opinion hosts such as Hannity and Ingraham than the on-air talent that is often considered more “news” oriented, such as Chris Wallace and Bret Baier.

Great work by Contorno and the Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute.

Interesting remarks

Speaking of the Tampa Bay Times, I found this letter to the editor from St. Petersburg, Florida, resident Laura Steiermann to be thought-provoking: “Can we please stop referring to radical right organizations like One America and Newsmax as conservative? There is nothing conservative about spreading lies and misinformation. There is nothing conservative about trying to overturn an election. Words matter. These are far right-wing institutions and nothing more.”

NHL wants media to be vaccinated and masked

In a story about the National Hockey League and player vaccinations, The Athletic’s Michael Russo and Katie Strang had this interesting paragraph regarding a memo sent out by the NHL Players’ Association:

“The memo also said all media and broadcast personnel (both in-house and third party) who are interacting with players or hockey operations personnel must be fully vaccinated and masked at all times during such interactions. That could be an indication that the league plans to allow fully vaccinated and masked media to have face-to-face interactions with vaccinated players and coaches this upcoming season rather than to conduct interviews virtually.”

Media tidbits

(Courtesy: NBC News)

  • As companies all across the country are still trying to figure out what to do about returning to work, NBC News will dedicate a week of coverage to this challenge. Special reports — called “Future of Work” — will air on such programs as the “Today” show, the “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC, NBC News Now and
  • The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has a new post out: “Hungary punked Tucker Carlson.”
  • Politico’s Erin Banco with “Inside America’s Covid-reporting breakdown.”
  • The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact will move its offices to Arizona State University’s campus in Washington, D.C. The new collaboration will expand training in fact-checking journalism, create a new website to fact-check Arizona politicians and grow Poynter’s teaching footprint in the nation’s capital. Here’s more from Poynter’s Tina Dyakon.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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