By:
August 17, 2021

For the past two days, we’ve seen heartbreaking and inconceivable images from Afghanistan. We’ve watched human beings leaping onto the sides of planes charging down a runway, desperate people literally and figuratively clinging to a dangerous and ultimately futile attempt to flee the country. We’ve watched bodies dropping from planes hundreds of feet above the ground. We’ve seen the Taliban, toting guns and menacing faces, taking over the presidential office and the streets in Kabul.

For much of the media, particularly TV news, these disturbing images are shown as commentators and anchors try to make sense of it all, often opting to shake a fist or point a finger, looking for someone or something to blame for such a tragedy.

And while this isn’t to suggest that there isn’t blame to go around or that our political leaders — current and past — shouldn’t be held accountable, or that we shouldn’t seek answers, the past two days have seen far too many examples of wanting black-and-white answers for a situation that is several shades of gray. And wanting them right this second.

In less than a minute, while speaking on CNN, former Obama strategist David Axelrod perfectly encapsulated the dichotomy of what has happened in Afghanistan. Axelrod said that President Joe Biden’s decision to get out of Afghanistan, ultimately, is the right one, and one that the American people can get on board with. Axelrod even suggested that Biden really had no choice, after 20 long years and especially after Donald Trump’s agreement that American troops would leave the country by May 1.

“But,” Axelrod added, “you cannot defend the execution. This has been a disaster. And anybody with a beating heart watching these scenes of people desperately swarming the airport, trying to get out ahead of the slaughter that they anticipate from the Taliban — it is heartbreaking, it is depressing and it’s a failure.”

And that’s where we are.

But that’s not good enough for some media. Margaret Sullivan’s column in The Washington Post was spot on: “The Afghan debacle lasted two decades. The media spent two hours deciding whom to blame.”

Sullivan wrote, “… what we largely got over the past few days was the all-too-familiar genre of ‘winners and losers’ coverage. It’s coverage that tends to elevate and amplify punditry over news, and to assign long-lasting political ramifications to a still-developing situation.”

As I wrote in my newsletter on Monday, whenever we have major breaking news stories, the easy (read: lazy) thing for TV networks to do is put a bunch of commentators on and let them fire off the hot takes, like it’s some “embrace debate” morning show you’d see on ESPN or hear on sports talk radio.

The coverage, in many places, was all too predictable. Conservative outlets were rough on Biden, as were several others (CNN’s Jake Tapper, for example) who, perhaps, wanted to show they are “balanced” and can criticize Biden as quickly as they used to beat up Trump. Many media fell into the camp of wanting to show just how tough they can be on the current president.

And if one of your regular commentators or anchors isn’t going to say it then invite someone on who will. Maybe that’s why CNN interviewed Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who gave the network the kind of scalding hot-take segment they surely envisioned when they asked him to come on.

Sasse said, “President Biden’s speech was shameful today. It was a campaign speech. This is worse than Saigon. What is happening at the Karzai International Airport today is a more shameful, lower moment in U.S. history than 1975 in Saigon.”

He said a bunch more as if he was auditioning for a future TV gig after his political days are over. And while he certainly has the right to express that opinion, is this how TV networks want to use their time?

Maybe so. Check out this quote from MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace after Biden’s speech defending the withdrawal from Afghanistan: “95% of the American people will agree with everything (Biden) just said. 95% of the press covering this White House will disagree.”

I think the 95% number is a tad high (on both sides), but I get her point and I agree with it.

Or compare and contrast the editorials and columns about Afghanistan in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. For example, the Times acknowledged the retreat out of Afghanistan has been a debacle. But the headline on Thomas Friedman’s column in The New York Times was more favorable to the president: “Biden Could Still Be Proved Right in Afghanistan.” Friedman wrote, “All of which leads to a fundamental and painful question: Was the U.S. mission there a total failure? Here I’d invoke one of my ironclad rules about covering the Middle East: When big events happen, always distinguish between the morning after and the morning after the morning after. Everything really important happens the morning after the morning after — when the full weight of history and the merciless balances of power assert themselves.”

Friedman’s point might best be read with rose-colored glasses, but at least he suggests that we should wait more than a day before declaring something shameful.

Which is how The Wall Street Journal editorial board started its editorial right after the fall of Kabul: “President Biden’s statement on Saturday washing his hands of Afghanistan deserves to go down as one of the most shameful in history by a Commander in Chief at such a moment of American retreat.” It added that it did criticize Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and warned against a quick withdrawal. But the board went on to write, “Mr. Biden’s Saturday self-justification exemplifies his righteous dishonesty.”

Again, all these takes come flooding after many in the media and American public had gone months putting the latest developments in Afghanistan on a back burner.

But, in the end, maybe we should take a breath. As Sullivan wrote, “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.”

So what did work in the coverage?

Again, and I cannot stress this enough, it’s the reporting and smart analysis that best benefit the audiences. If you’re going to talk to analysts, have them tell us what went wrong and why, not who is to blame. We can do the “who” later.

For example, in an insightful interview, former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CNN’s John King that the United States went into Afghanistan for two reasons. One was to find Osama bin Laden and those in al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 to assure such an attack would never happen again. The other, Panetta said, was to make sure Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists.

“We failed at that (other) mission,” Panetta said.

Panetta continued, “It’s obvious that a lot of mistakes have been made. Mistakes in judgment. Mistakes in strategy. Look, the simplest lesson that we failed to learn here is the lesson from Vietnam and Iraq and from other places, which is one, you need to have a clear mission when you deploy our forces. What is the mission you’re trying to achieve? Secondly, you’ve got to make sure you have a strategy to achieve that mission. And, thirdly, you have to have an endgame — when to get the hell out. Unfortunately, we never implemented those principles in Afghanistan.”

See, that kind of analysis helps viewers understand.

Meanwhile, onto the reporting …

CNN’s wicked response

CNN’s Clarissa Ward reporting from Afghanistan last week. (Courtesy: CNN)

On Monday, CNN journalist Clarissa Ward, who has done exemplary work from Afghanistan, was in the streets reporting what she was hearing and seeing. In the clip here, Ward said, “They’re just chanting ‘death to America,’ but they seem friendly at the same time. It’s utterly bizarre.”

Apparently that rankled Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who tweeted, “Is there an enemy of America for whom @CNN WON’T cheerlead? (In mandatory burkas, no less.)”

CNN wasn’t having any of it. Its communications department fired back at Cruz with this devastating tweet: “Rather than running off to Cancun in tough times, @clarissaward is risking her life to tell the world what’s happening. That’s called bravery. Instead of RTing a conspiracy theorist’s misleading soundbite, perhaps your time would be better spent helping Americans in harm’s way.”

Wow. If it was a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight and someone would’ve had to help Cruz back to his corner.

Speaking of Ward, to reiterate, her work in the past few days has been superb, as has been the reporting of NBC’s Richard Engel. One of Ward’s strongest moments was interviewing members of the Taliban, even challenging them on whether Afghan women should be required to cover their faces in public. Her reporting was not only courageous, but journalistically first-rate.

Meanwhile, Engel is another who really takes viewers with him and gives them a feel for what is happening on the ground and in the neighborhoods.

“This was a popular beauty salon, styling women’s hair and makeup,” Engel said during a report on Monday’s “Today” show. “The Taliban banned salons along with education for women and girls. So when the Taliban came back, now they’ve painted over the beauty shop. People here know what the Taliban want. They know what the Taliban expect. … We watched a man tear up the beauty parlor sign in line with the Taliban’s wishes.”

One more thing from Engel during an appearance on MSNBC’s “MTP Daily”: He said, “I don’t believe that the U.S. was as surprised as it is claiming” over the sudden collapse in Afghanistan.

All the networks deserve praise for the work of their reporters on the ground in Afghanistan. Newspaper outlets, too.

Also, kudos to CBS News for breaking into regular programming to cover Biden’s speech on Monday. (Most local affiliates for ABC and NBC showed the speech, too.) CBS News White House correspondent Ed O’Keefe said, “In many ways it sounded like the ‘I told you so’ speech. Something he has been reiterating in conversations with military and national security leaders for the last 15 years in these kinds of meetings, saying this kind of conflict was unnecessary.”

More notable pieces about Afghanistan …

Biden interview

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos will have an exclusive interview with President Biden on Wednesday’s “World News Tonight.”

Powerful tweet

This from NPR’s Scott Simon, host of “Weekend Edition Saturday”: “Even if you believe US withdrawal from Afghanistan is only wise, after 20 years of sacrifice, and the collapse of the Afghan army only confirms that, I have to think there was a way for a great nation to depart without leaving desperate people to cling to and fall off US planes.”

Letter to the president

Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan, Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger sent a letter to President Biden, asking him to help those who aided the Post, Times and Journal over the years in Afghanistan.

The letter said, “For the past twenty years, brave Afghan colleagues have worked tirelessly to help The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal share news and information from the region with the global public. Now, those colleagues and their families are trapped in Kabul, their lives in peril.”

They asked Biden to stand behind a free press and ask the government for three things:

  • Facilitated and protected access to the U.S.-controlled airport.
  • Safe passage through a protected access gate to the airport.
  • Facilitated air movement out of the country.

Latour told The Post’s Sarah Ellison and Elahe Izadi, “Right now we are focused on seeking safe passage for our Afghan colleagues and their families who even now are bearing witness to events on the ground. We need the immediate support of the US government in bringing them to safety.”

Cuomo back on the air and addresses controversy

CNN’s Chris Cuomo was back on the air Monday night after a week’s vacation and, surprisingly, he did talk about the situation involving his brother, Andrew, who is resigning as governor of New York after being accused by many women of inappropriate touching and comments. The allegations were deemed credible by the New York attorney general.

In the days after the attorney general’s investigation, Chris had avoided talking about his brother, even after it was learned he had been a part of the team helping Andrew strategize a defense against the accusations. It was a major conflict of interest, but even Monday, Chris attempted to justify and defend his actions in a brief commentary near the end of his “Cuomo Primetime” show.

He started by offering thanks to those who have supported him and shown concern. He said there were “a lot of people feeling a lot of hurt” and that it was his hope that everyone involved would get to “a better place.” Cuomo then repeated how it’s not easy being from a famous political family and he could not have imagined this situation.

Then he went on the defensive.

“You should also know that I never covered my brother’s troubles because I obviously have a conflict,” Cuomo said. “And there are rules at CNN about that.”

However, Andrew was a regular guest on Chris’ show a year ago during the beginning of COVID-19. Chris said Monday that he said at the time his brother’s appearances would be short-lived and then reminded viewers that his brother hadn’t appeared on his show in more than a year.

“I also said back then that a day would come when he would have to be held to account and I can’t do that,” Cuomo said. “Point blank, I can’t be objective when it comes to my family. So I never reported on the scandal. And when it happened, I tried to be there for my brother.”

Cuomo said he was not an adviser, but a brother, and that he was there “to offer my take.”

And what was that take? Cuomo said he told his brother to “own what you did, tell people what you do to be better, be contrite and, finally, accept that it doesn’t matter what you intended. What matters is how your actions and words were perceived.”

Cuomo then said he ultimately urged his brother to resign.

He added, “There are stories and critics saying all kinds of things about me, many unsupported. But know this: My position has never changed. I never misled anyone about the information I was delivering or not delivering on this program. I never attacked nor encouraged anyone to attack any woman who came forward.”

Cuomo said he never made calls to the press on his brother’s behalf or attempted to influence CNN’s coverage. And he said that when it became known (thanks to a Washington Post story) that he was involved in meetings involving his brother, he apologized to his colleagues and stopped.

He closed by saying the situation was unique and that he tried to do the right thing.

“This will be my final word on it,” Cuomo said.

While some viewers won’t be totally satisfied with what Cuomo had to say, at least he addressed the controversy. Then again, it doesn’t erase this mess. CNN should have never allowed Andrew to appear on Chris’ show during the early stages of the coronavirus. Chris should have never been a part of strategy sessions with his brother. And, if Chris was going to offer his brother advice, viewers should have been told about that well before the Post story broke the news.

Media tidbits

CBS News’ Vladimir Duthiers, reporting from Haiti. (Courtesy: CBS News)

  • A shoutout to CBS News’ Vladimir Duthiers, who is doing excellent work covering the rescue efforts underway in Haiti following the devastating earthquake. Duthiers has extensive experience in Haiti, having covered the 2010 earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands.
  • I should’ve mentioned this in Monday’s newsletter, but it got left behind because of all the breaking news in Afghanistan. David Mikkelson, the co-founder of the fact-checking website Snopes, wrote dozens of plagiarized articles. BuzzFeed News’ Dean Sterling Jones broke the story. And here’s more from Heather Murphy of The New York Times.
  • Scoop from The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Mullin: “Axel Springer in Talks to Buy Ownership Stake in Politico.”
  • Washington Post Opinions is starting a new weekly newsletter called “The Checkup with Dr. Wen.” It will be anchored by Dr. Leana Wen, a Post opinion contributing columnist and emergency physician. Wen will write about pressing public health issues, including COVID-19, and will include a Q&A section. It will be published on Thursday afternoons, starting this Thursday.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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