For the average news consumer in the United States, the US war in Afghanistan has been a noble cause that has brought democracy to a “backward nation.” There might be an occasional investigative story in the New York Times or on the cable news channels, but much of the reporting on Afghanistan since the October 2001 invasion and subsequent occupation tends to reflect the position of the US government.
If the US public is ever going to hold the US government accountable for its policy in Afghanistan, then we need to challenge how the US news media reports on that policy. There have been ongoing efforts by groups like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, but for many Americans most of their news media comes from local TV news or the monopoly daily newspaper in their community.
Since the US occupation of Afghanistan began more than seven years ago, we have been monitoring the news coverage of that occupation. We have monitored three local TV stations and the Grand Rapids Press, have seen a fairly consistent pattern of reporting, and can draw some important conclusions in regards to how this coverage has affected public’s understanding of US policy in Afghanistan.
Our research has shown that if the public relies on the local news media for understanding US policy in Afghanistan, that people will have limited knowledge of that policy and a perspective that is primarily through the eyes of US officials. If an effort to challenge the incoming administration’s position on Afghanistan is to be successful, it must include as part of its strategy both an understanding of how public perception of Afghanistan has been created and a plan to challenge how Afghanistan is being framed in the news.
Afghanistan through Government Eyes
Our first study of the local news coverage of the US policy in Afghanistan began the day US warplanes started dropping bombs in October 2001. We conducted a 75-day study of the three Grand Rapids based TV stations’ coverage of what was then exclusively referred to as “The War on Terror.” All three of the TV stations used slick graphics and ominous music to intro their stories. In addition, each station came up with its own titles related to the US war in Afghanistan, such as “America Strikes Back,” “America at War,” and “The War on Terrorism.”
The type of stories that were presented on the local TV stations either focused on what the US military was doing, the response from the Taliban, or the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Much of the footage that was used was provided by the Department of Defense, and in the case of the local Fox affiliate, they used DOD created computer animations to explain everything from the US “humanitarian food drops,” C-130 planes, the Daisy Cutter bomb, and the elaborate cave construction that allegedly housed bin Laden and the Al Q’eada network. This type of coverage framed the war from the US perspective with limited information on what was happening to the Afghani people. Even more absent than stories on civilian casualties was the lack of any reporting that provided historical context to US policy in that region of the world in recent decades.
Once the US “defeated” the Taliban, the amount of coverage dropped significantly. As the US installed the Karzai-led government in Afghanistan news reports dwindled as attention began to focus on Iraq. The lack of reporting on Afghanistan was so limited it was almost nonexistent. In a 72-day study of local TV news coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, we documented only three stories about Afghanistan from August 1 through November 8, 2005. The focus of these three stories were a US helicopter crash, escaped prisoners, and a US bombing raid.
This limited coverage of the ongoing US occupation of Afghanistan continues to this day, with occasional stories generated during the presidential race and the recent proposal of President-Elect Obama to commit to sending 30,000 more US troops to fight the “real war on terror.”
The Noble War
The US media has certainly manufactured part of the public perception about the US war in Afghanistan, but US policy makers have also framed it as a “Noble War.” This deep-seated notion of the nobility of the US military campaign in Afghanistan has not only been a bipartisan message it has even been embraced at some level by sectors of the US anti-war movement.
If any new attempt to hold the new administration accountable for its policy in Afghanistan is to succeed, it must come to terms with a distorted view of the US war, but also the lack of media attention. Imagine if the coverage of Afghanistan rivaled that of the amount of coverage on Iraq? Moreover, while the coverage of Iraq was also rather biased, stories did manage to surface about torture, civilian deaths, and the use of private mercenary forces. We know from the research done by the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch, and Professor Marc Herold–to name just a few–that serious human rights abuses have happened at the hands of the US military and its allies in Afghanistan.
Understanding how this manufactured view of Afghanistan has evolved is absolutely necessary if we are going to mobilize the public to change US policy on Afghanistan. If the public perception of Afghanistan has been formed by a distorted view, then we need to do the hard work of educating people about the reality of US policy over the past seven years. In addition, we need to challenge US media outlets to not only report on US policy in Afghanistan, but to begin to present other sources besides the US military and State Department. If we are to win public support for ending the US occupation of Afghanistan then we need to expose the failure of the policy the same way we have with Iraq. Exposing this failure should include the exposure of how the US media has failed to honestly report on Afghanistan.