Whatever Happened to Afghanistan?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June 2003

Whatever Happened to Afghanistan?   

It's been relegated to the shadows since the media spotlight moved on. But whether the United States follows through on its commitment to rebuild the long-suffering nation has lasting ramifications for the war on terrorism and deserves journalistic scrutiny.

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


At the end of April, as some were questioning whether Iraq was already making a slow retreat from the news, a Baltimore Sun story began with this question: "Remember Afghanistan? Anybody?"

It was a lead that spoke volumes about the short attention span of the American public, or maybe the White House, or the press. Or was it all of the above?

It was also a popular way to start a piece. Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, posed the same "remember?" query at the beginning of a column critical of the Bush administration for shifting focus. Further into the piece, Tucker wrote, "Afghanistan is already a distant memory for the news media, for most ordinary Americans and even for foreign-policy hands in the Bush administration."

Instead of "meanwhile, in other news," we may just be witnessing the emergence of a new cliché--introducing reports about Afghanistan by referring to the little attention given to reports about Afghanistan.

On the April 25 "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather read a brief item about two American special-forces soldiers killed in a firefight in that country east of Iraq. His lead-in: "In the all-but-forgotten war in Afghanistan..." And "CBS Morning News" anchor Susan McGinnis warned on March 31, "Lest anyone forget, there is another war going on, this one in Afghanistan."

It was as recently as late February that Afghan President Hamid Karzai (at least we all remember him) came to Washington to deliver the message "Don't forget Afghanistan." Oh Mr. Karzai, your country has certainly become a back-burner issue. And it's up to a small number of media organizations to keep the flame alive.

As is to be expected, coverage has declined since October 2001, when the U.S. launched its war against the Taliban. And the story counts and airtime minutes have continued to plummet. In January 2002, the networks' weekday nightly newscasts aired a total of 106 minutes on Afghanistan, according to Andrew Tyndall, who tracks such numbers for the Tyndall Report. This January, the count was down to 11 minutes. In March, it was a mere 60 seconds.

For U.S. newspapers, it's difficult to do a sweeping content study, but a search of Lexis-Nexis stories with a dateline of "Afghanistan" produces some interesting results. From January through the end of April 2002, a search nets a trove of stories that Lexis-Nexis considers too large to display (at least 1,000). A year later, from January through April 2003, there were 167 stories. (Note: Not all newspapers are available through Lexis-Nexis.)

Of those 167, more than half were published in two newspapers: the New York Times (52) and the Washington Post (37).

Those two papers continue to keep at least one staffer, or in the Times' case a dedicated stringer, in Afghanistan. In early May, a number of major newspapers, including USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Times, no longer had anyone there. USA Today said it expects to send someone back soon, and the Journal is using two freelancers in Pakistan for its coverage. In the case of television, ABC, CBS and Fox News didn't have reporters in Afghanistan. ABC planned to send a reporter back; CBS was maintaining its house and a producer in Kabul; Fox reporters travel in and out. CNN is the only TV network with a team in Afghanistan; it also has a bureau in Pakistan.

On the cable news channels, the word "Afghanistan" is mentioned almost every day, usually in talk-show conversations that include "unlike in Afghanistan..." or "just as we saw in Afghanistan." Breaking news--a land mine that blew up a bus, killing 18, or a helicopter crash that killed six--usually gets reported and is repeated throughout the day. But substantive reports that piece these tidbits together to provide context are extremely rare.

We could take a glass-half-full attitude toward the decline: After all, very few news organizations had any kind of presence in Afghanistan prior to September 11, and here we are, a year and eight months later, with some still hanging in. News--even if it's mainly briefs, and those few and far between--is being published and aired. If someone wanted to stay up-to-date, he or she could take the time to search for stories about Karzai and Kabul and what the warlords are up to – such pieces are there for the finding.

But without prominent media coverage, Afghanistan becomes an afterthought. Some journalists say that this is the case with any number of former hotspots--Somalia, Panama, Colombia, Rwanda, Iraq after the first gulf war--countries that quickly faded from the news or hardly made the headlines in the first place. The argument for a different fate for Afghanistan is that this was the first stop in the lengthy war on terrorism, and the United States (with more than 9,000 troops still there) has made a commitment to rebuilding the country. Whether that commitment is fulfilled, and how well Afghanistan is able to recover from 20-plus years of conflict, has long-term ramifications for possible terrorist attacks against the U.S., the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and rage against America, and the stability of the region.

Journalist Roy Gutman, who is working on a book about Afghanistan before September 11, believes this part of the world should remain a journalistic priority. "I think it's incumbent on all of us to develop a worldview that actually fits the world we're living in," he says. "What I'm learning from my own research right now is that South Asia and Central Asia...[is] a region in real transition." With the types of wars and upheavals there, and the fact that the area gave rise to Osama bin Laden, "it seems to me we want to draw the lesson that we want to figure this one out."

There's a responsibility, editors agree, to keep attention on important stories even if the public seems to be losing interest. Says Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll: "The media power of television and the Internet to sort of create one big commodity of running news stories...makes it all the more essential to go where other people won't go, can't go.... Afghanistan was one of those places before September 11, and I think it still is."

The criticism of Afghanistan coverage now is that it will barely make a blip on the media's radar unless something big happens (a horrific event or the capture of the elusive bin Laden) or unless the Bush administration broaches the subject.

"I think that news judgments at this moment are affected more than ever before by the agenda that comes out of the White House," says Av Westin, a former ABC News executive. "I don't quite know why." One reason, he says, is that the media don't want to be accused of being unpatriotic.

Even at a news organization that has made a commitment to be there, there's fear that the effort hasn't been good enough. Coll says that though his paper and others have staffed Afghanistan, "the weight of the coverage has been drawn elsewhere." And it's not just the country, it's al Qaeda and Pakistan, rage against America and political Islam. "Afghanistan is a symbol of a larger story in a way," Coll says. As an editor, "I feel frustrated on a lot of days that we are not delivering on that subject.... It may be that the Bush administration has shifted focus.... But I don't think we should be in tandem."

The "all-but-forgotten" Afghanistan was once "the story of a lifetime." That's how reporters described it to AJR's Sherry Ricchiardi in the fall of 2001. Kabul, in fact, was home to a media circus on several occasions.

Pamela Constable is the Washington Post's Kabul correspondent. After 9/11 and particularly after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 and into early 2002, she says, "it was very, very crowded with lots and lots of journalists." The big hotel in Kabul--the Intercontinental--was booked solid, and camera crews from all over the world were in the streets. The throngs thinned out but came back in June 2002, when the loya jirga met to choose new Afghan leaders. After that, the level of media presence "dropped off again," she says, "and stayed fairly constant but not as crowded for the rest of the year."

Constable left in December 2002 to write a memoir about her experiences covering Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. She'll go back in July, and in the meantime, the Post's Marc Kaufman and April Witt have been filling in. Kaufman, who spent December through March in Afghanistan, says many print and broadcast media organizations had rented houses in Kabul. Most of those houses are empty now. For Kaufman, having less company wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Afghanistan, he says, is "journalistic heaven because there are fascinating stories there and few reporters to report them." He regularly talked to ministers in the Afghan government and Lt. Gen. Daniel K. McNeill, commander of the U.S. troops there. He "generally had access that I think was clearly improved by the fact that there were so few other reporters."

Vanessa Gezari, a freelance reporter on assignment in Kabul for the Chicago Tribune, echoes those comments. "It's actually nice for me, though perhaps problematic for Afghanistan, that there aren't many reporters here at the moment," she writes in an e-mail to AJR. "I don't like pack journalism, and I find that most people, Afghans included, tend to be much more thoughtful and energized about talking when there are fewer journalists around."

Gezari notes that not all reporters agree that it's a wonderful place to be--one American reporter told her it was boring. And these journalists have differing views on whether the shrinking media contingent was to be lamented. Says Kaufman, "I think there are enough reporters that significant problems are going to be reported.... And if it looks like things are going to be really bad, that signal will bring people back."

Gezari is optimistic that that will be the case. But she's still worried about the decline in coverage. "In Afghanistan," she says, "history counts for a lot, and journalists with a past here have amazing access and depth."

At the St. Petersburg Times, there's proof that having a reporter on the scene translates into stories making the paper. Staff writer Chuck Murphy spent three weeks in Afghanistan in late March and early April. Of the six traditional news stories he filed, four ran on the front page. At a time when everyone was concentrating on Iraq, how exactly did a trip to Afghanistan come about? "I nagged," says Murphy.

When the Times learned how many embedded reporters it could have in Iraq, editors asked Murphy if he'd like to go. He says he responded, "To tell you the truth again, I'd rather go to Afghanistan. I don't think as many newspapers are there, and I think we can do something different." His editors were ultimately sold, he says, when he got an e-mail from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, saying there were only two reporters there, from the Associated Press and Reuters, and that Reuters was leaving soon.

"I have to tell you it was a little bit of an extraordinary experience as a reporter in that I was welcomed just about everywhere I went," Murphy says. "U.S. troops were glad to see me.... There's no question they were feeling unloved."

Murphy's stories--about what troops are doing in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, operations to win over Afghan support for the new government, the bread-making business Afghan men have undertaken near a U.S. base--would sometimes hold for a few days, waiting for a lull in the action in Iraq. But he says he wasn't frustrated by that. What he is frustrated by is the dependence on a few to cover news for many.

"The more people who are there, the more likely their newspapers are to put [stories] on the front page, and the more likely people are to get a range of viewpoints," he says. "Is the U.S. making progress? Are they not?" Answers to those questions are more likely to come out if the press corps is augmented. "When you're counting on the three or four big news outlets to do all the work around the world--they're wonderful--but when you're counting on them to cover the entire planet while you worry only about city council or the state legislature, it's a dilution of voices, and I think ultimately the readers aren't being served as well."

The Christian Science Monitor is another newspaper that has made a commitment to staffing Afghanistan. Scott Baldauf, based in New Delhi, has been there most often, and other reporters in the region have been rotated in and out. While the Monitor didn't have as many recent Afghanistan datelines as the Washington Post (it had 17), the paper has carried some of the longest stories--say 2,500 words on how the United Nations' efforts in Afghanistan could provide a model for what the U.N. does in Iraq--and it ran an April 28 story by Baldauf about an al Qaeda spy ring on page one.

Monitor Editor Paul Van Slambrouck says all the media energy was sucked into Iraq. In his paper Afghanistan coverage was usually back-of-the-book. With Iraq winding down, he says, "now will be a truer test of how we prioritize those two stories."

Van Slambrouck is one of the few people interviewed for this story who doesn't accept that readers have lost interest in what happens in Afghanistan. "There's a readership out there that is strongly interested in the coverage that we're providing," he says. "I don't feel that we are bucking against a readership trend." People still understand how foreign stories affect them. The Monitor, Van Slambrouck says, has maintained a presence in the region for a long time, and that pays off. "You can't dip in and out," he says. "You lose track of the story.... I don't know if there'll be a timeline that will be clear to readers" if we don't cover it.

There is, however, that little matter of money. Not all news organizations feel they can afford to keep staffers overseas, and those that can sometimes need to make hard decisions about which areas of the world are more vital at the moment. While coverage of Afghanistan had declined well before the buildup to Iraq, the war there pulled a number of other journalists out.

Says David C. Scott, the Monitor's international news editor: "We, like other organizations, threw a lot of resources at [Iraq]. But at the same time for me...I didn't feel like we could leave [Afghanistan] uncovered." The paper took staffers from other places (Africa was one) and sent them to Iraq, but Baldauf stayed in Kabul.

In early May it had been several months since USA Today had a reporter in Afghanistan. World Editor Elisa Tinsley says the paper still has an interest in what happens in the country, but "it's just a matter of when and where resources are available." Other events, in addition to the war in Iraq, she says, had affected where reporters were assigned. USA Today has an office in Afghanistan, and Tinsley said a reporter would be going back in the next month.

"I can see how the news sort of bubbles" and "moves in different directions," she says. "That's not to say that...it isn't still on our radar." The paper uses the wires--many credit the Associated Press' Kathy Gannon, based in Islamabad, Pakistan, with providing excellent coverage of the region – when news warrants, Tinsley says.

Resources have also affected the Wall Street Journal's coverage. "I think the problem for us has been the bad economy, because it's meant we've had to be very selective in terms of newsprint space and in terms of reporters," says Foreign News Editor Lora Western. "I'm sure you could continue to do fascinating stories from Afghanistan, but we were looking for what are the biggest issues now that are in flux that could affect where world issues go from here. Afghanistan seems [to be] fairly on the same course." Western adds that the Journal's focus is business news and the paper emphasizes analysis more heavily than breaking political news.

There also were special circumstances at the Journal. In early 2002, the paper pulled all of its reporters out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, mainly because one of its staffers, Daniel Pearl, was kidnapped in Pakistan and killed. Also, two reporters in Kabul had come across an al Qaeda computer, and they left the country to research and write about that.

Western says the paper has gone back to its pre-9/11 arrangement: no full-time staff in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Journal uses two freelancers based in Pakistan.

CBS News' Moscow correspondent, Elizabeth Palmer, has spent a lot of time reporting from Afghanistan since September 11. In fact, Palmer was there during the bulk of the most intense action in Iraq. But in early April, she went to Baghdad. CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius says the network doesn't know if Palmer or another reporter will go back anytime soon. (Palmer says she stays in touch with a producer who is still there.)

One of the problems with covering Afghanistan, Palmer says, is that it's no longer a fast-breaking news story. Network television, with its very limited newshole, is dedicated to what's hot at the moment. "The fact is these little incremental changes don't warrant people keeping full crews there anymore."

John Schidlovsky, director of the Pew International Journalism Program, says he can't blame the news media entirely for not paying as much attention to Afghanistan, or even Iraq, once the fighting is over. "They've spent so much money covering the hot phase of the war," he says, "many can't afford to stay on for the perhaps less exciting, but perhaps more important, coverage of what happens after the shooting stops."

As far as the public's short attention span, Schidlovsky says it's a vicious circle. "The public has a perception that the war is over, and then the media begin to take correspondents away and that fuels the public's perception that the war is over and so on."

Bronwyn Lance Chester, editorial writer and opinion columnist at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, has written about the importance of not forgetting Afghanistan. She, for one, doesn't accept the resources-had-to-go-to-Iraq argument. "Is that fair?" she asks. "Look at how many reporters were embedded in Iraq.... Every cable network from the quilting channel to MSNBC had somebody embedded over there.... If we can spare the resources to report on one thing, can't we also spare the few resources [it would take] to report on Afghanistan as well?"

Lately, her newspaper hasn't published much on that other war either. "I think a lot of folks are guilty of it," she says of the shift in emphasis. "As the newspaper that covers the largest military concentration in the country, [it's] obvious why we would focus more on Iraq." But, Lance Chester adds, "My neighbor across the street just left yesterday for Afghanistan."

There is the desire, if not the ability, on the part of some editors to do more. Philadelphia Inquirer Foreign Editor Ned Warwick "can't wait" to send someone back to Afghanistan. Andrew Maykuth, the paper's former Johannesburg correspondent who is now on a Knight Fellowship, provided dispatches from Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. He returns to the paper this summer. "I would give anything to send him back over," Warwick says. "As we look away and get preoccupied by the Middle East, we do it at our peril."

Not having someone there clearly affects what goes into the paper or the newscast. Since the St. Petersburg Times' Murphy has returned, he says he doesn't think there is a commitment to playing news from Afghanistan more prominently at his paper. "I wish I could say otherwise," he says. In late April, two American soldiers were killed in a firefight with rebels, and the Times, and other outlets, ran a brief about it. Murphy says he searched the newspaper for days afterward looking for their names, but came up empty. "It sounds like a small thing in a country where there are murders every day," Murphy says. "But U.S. troops died in combat and their names didn't make the paper.... And I think that's happened a lot from Afghanistan."

Poor little Afghanistan has a hard time competing for space. ABC News Senior Vice President Paul Slavin predicts that reports from the country will make a comeback now that the activity in Iraq is less intense. His network, which had its Beijing correspondent traveling in and out of Afghanistan in April, is talking about when it can send someone back in. But there's an additional problem. Slavin says the storyline in Afghanistan and Iraq is similar: nation building. And if you only have time for one or the other in the nightly newscast, Iraq is going to win. "Nation building in Iraq," Slavin says, "is more dynamic because it's newer."

There isn't a lot of breaking news in Afghanistan these days, but when there is, there are mentions, however short, in at least some of the news media. And you'll hear the tidbits repeated a few times throughout the day on the cable news channels. Most of the newspaper stories from this year were spot news stories--U.S. forces involved in the largest battle in nearly a year against Afghan guerrillas, a Red Cross worker dragged out of his car and executed by suspected Taliban gunmen, a taxi laden with explosives that blew up in an apparent botched terrorist attack, killing the driver and three others. All important news, but giving readers bits and pieces back on page A20 doesn't help them understand what's happening in the country.

More thorough reports crop up here and there. For instance, CNN's Karl Penhaul appeared on the network nine times this year from Afghanistan (up until March 17; by then he was in Iraq). Of those taped and live segments, six were spot news reports, two were features on aspects of life in Afghanistan, and the most substantive piece, an overall look at what's going on in Afghanistan and how it's tied to challenges in Iraq, aired on CNN International but not CNN in this country.

MSNBC's correspondent in Kabul, Marina Fazel, had four reports air this year, prior to February 28. Three were breaking news and one was an interview with her by anchor Keith Olbermann on current issues in Afghanistan. Fox News' Geraldo Rivera swept through the country on his way to Iraq, appearing in a number of segments from March 9 through March 21.

Roy Gutman says he hopes to see more big-picture stories, the ones that require some digging. "Iraq was more than a distraction, it was a major event," he says, "so the real test is whether people go back [to Afghanistan].... And it may take a different kind of coverage than the sexy bang-bang of the last month." It takes sophistication, he says. "The American media is fully capable of doing this.... And the American public is capable of reading this. But that's not to say it's going to happen, because I think on the whole editors underestimate the intelligence of their readers."

Most editors would disagree with that statement. But there is a limit on space, even in the large papers. Something in-depth that doesn't have a sense of urgency, or slice-of-life-in-Afghanistan pieces, might hold for a while. Pamela Constable of the Washington Post says she's not worried that it'll be difficult to get big news in the paper once she goes back to Afghanistan this summer. It's the smaller stuff--"when you've written some long feature about some aspect about life in some country that could be in the paper the next week or the next month"--that's problematic. Those features will get in, she says, but she expects it will take longer.

Says Gezari: "I'm convinced that what's happening in Afghanistan now is just as important in the long run, if not more so, than what was happening a year or 18 months ago, so I don't feel that the story is in any way over.... This is a society rebuilding itself, and I think the stories we choose to tell about developing countries--especially about a place as extraordinary as Afghanistan, and one with as many links to the U.S.--are really significant, both for people here and for readers in America."

But for television, it's becoming a check-back-in-and-see story. "I think Afghanistan is one of the most televisual places on the earth," says CBS' Elizabeth Palmer. But "it all comes back to the fact that you can't go there to film daily news."

Her last substantial segment, about the problems of nation building and security in Afghanistan, went to "Sunday Morning," not the evening newscast. "This is a dilemma we all face all the time in the business. When a story is still passionately interesting...and yet doesn't generate daily news...how do you keep it in the spotlight?" Palmer asks. There are hundreds of stories like that, she says, though Afghanistan is in a special category. "I don't know the answer to that. It's something that we all fight with all the time, every day."

Stories that are percolating rather than boiling over, Palmer says, resonate most deeply with viewers who are keeping up with them. Those stories more often appear in venues geared for such viewers. For instance, CBS' "60 Minutes." The show led its May 4 program with a piece by Lesley Stahl that took a hard look at U.S. efforts to get the country on its feet.

Does the nature of the story mean we're not going to see much Afghanistan on television apart from segments on the newsmagazines? ABC's Paul Slavin doesn't think so. Despite the overall dearth of coverage on the evening newscasts, ABC aired six segments in a "Back to Afghanistan" series in February and March. But Slavin says Afghanistan is particularly difficult for television, because it requires sending a minimum of four people "to do a good job," and the country is hard to travel in since it's not completely secure. "It's easier to travel around in Iraq right now than Afghanistan," he says.

Once again, Iraq wins.

In smaller papers, finding coverage of Afghanistan when the Bush administration isn't talking about it is close to impossible. "International news in U.S. newspapers, outside of the papers of record, will follow the White House, and the White House has shifted the focus," says Edward L. Seaton, editor in chief of Kansas' Manhattan Mercury.

Seaton says the amount of coverage the public sees will depend on what the U.S. government does. "If the U.S. abandons it, then it's a lot less likely to be getting into the paper until there is an explosion of some kind," he says. "But as long as the likes of [Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld drop in there occasionally," stories will make the papers.

Seaton has been on a crusade for the past five years--ever since he was president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors--to get editors to run more foreign news. He has talked about trying to find a local connection. Virginia's Roanoke Times found such a link in an A1 story in April with this telling headline: "Lack of Coverage Doesn't Bother Parents of 'Forgotten War' Soldier."

In Manhattan, Kansas, there's a business school dean at a local university who is Afghan, and he's been speaking about his country, warning that if it's abandoned, it will breed terrorists once again. Seaton's paper has worked Afghanistan into its pages by covering the dean.

The fact that there was sporadic coverage of Afghanistan even before Rumsfeld's visit in early May shows that not all news organizations are simply following the White House. But in the absence of White House attention, Afghanistan doesn't get a prominent position in the newshole. It becomes a reporter-driven story--it's up to those who have made long-term commitments to stay to do all the digging.

"It's not as if [newspapers are] walking away from it or running away from it," Gutman says. "But what it takes...is tenacity, it takes patience, it takes concentration over a period of years. This region really deserves it, and I hope it's going to get it. I'm quite convinced that in the period before September 11 it didn't get it."

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