Journalists can’t have opinions…unless they want more war

Remember Peter Arnett? The New Zealand-born journalist won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam coverage and was praised for his Gulf War reporting. During the Iraq War NBC began airing his reports from Baghdad, a city that most journalists had fled over safety concerns.

In 2003 Arnett made a big mistake: he went on Iraqi television and told the truth. He said the first phase of the war had been a failure for the United States. They had underestimated the resistance. Civilian casualties were increasing and there was growing opposition to Bush’s war back home.

Initially NBC stood in support of its employee. “His impromptu interview with Iraqi TV was done as a professional courtesy and was similar to other interviews he has done with media outlets from around the world,” they explained in a statement. “His remarks were analytical in nature and were not intended to be anything more. His outstanding reporting on the war speaks for itself.”

That all made sense, but it’s tough to explain the climate of that era to people who are too young to remember it. There was an immediate right-wing backlash. Fox News predictably declared that Arnett was supporting Saddam. NBC folded in less than a day and came forward with a new statement. Arnett was canned:

It was wrong for Mr. Arnett to grant an interview to state-controlled Iraqi TV, especially at a time of war. … And it was wrong for him to discuss his personal observations and opinions in that interview.

I was thinking about Arnett while I watched the media react to the U.S. withdrawing from Afghanistan. It’s a move that’s supported by 70% of Americans, but you’d never know that from some of the coverage. Here’s NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel on Twitter: “In Kabul I keep thinking, It didn’t have to be this way. It was not inevitable. Afghans, women, men, musicians, students, scholars and so many more, worked hard for twenty years, only to see everything fall away.”

What did Engel want exactly? Another twenty years of occupation? Another $2.2 trillion of taxpayer money spent? Maybe another round of bombing? More Predator Drones? It’s hard to say but it’s perfectly fine to tweet something like this as an employee of NBC. You get fired if you say a war is a failing but implying one should continue indefinitely is never a problem.

Earlier this year controversy surrounded New York Times editor Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist. On Twitter Wolfe said she felt “chills” watching Joe Biden fly to his inauguration. Everyone knows that the vast majority of New York Times employees aren’t fans of Donald Trump, but you can’t actually acknowledge this publicly. Another right-wing brouhaha was drummed up and the paper ended up dumping Wolfe.

You can’t express political preference and maintain a job at the Times but you can attack critics of U.S. foreign policy. You know, the people who were right about Afghanistan from the very beginning. Here’s their Chief Africa correspondent Declan Walsh on Twitter: “Jalalabad gone, only Kabul left. For those who lamented ‘forever wars’ – is the phrase anything more than a comforting cop-out for epic failures of policy and the imagination? – here’s what the end looks like.”

The tweets from people like Engel and Walsh obviously aren’t the most egregious things to pick on the mainstream media about this week. It’s much more troubling that the architects of the “War on Terror” have been making the rounds to condemn Biden’s withdrawal. Turn on NPR and you’re liable to hear John Bolton talk about how the U.S. should have stayed in Afghanistan forever. On television stations you might hear George W. Bush talk about his “deep sadness” about the war ending.

Chloe Simon and Gideon Taaffe have a brilliant piece at Media Matters about how the mainstream press has effectively spun its withdraw coverage into an argument for continued military occupation. They detail how the media has ignored the Taliban resurgence for years, hyped a theoretical  Al Qaeda return, framed the U.S. military as protectors of women, and continually advocated for more war.

“Mainstream media coverage of the Afghanistan conflict has, for the most part, centered its reporting around supporting the U.S. occupation,” they write. “Even as tens of thousands of Afghan civilians died and billions of dollars poured into “nation-building” initiatives that weren’t achieving results, media efforts to cheer on the war continued.”

There’s some polling that suggests all these efforts might be having an impact. A Morning Consult/POLITICO poll just found that only 25% of American voters think the withdrawal is going well. Only 49% said they support the withdrawal, that’s down by 20% since April. It’s plausible that the media won’t be paying much attention to Afghanistan in a few months. After all, they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so largely ignoring the country. However, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of blame to go around for this ongoing disaster and they belong somewhere towards the top.

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