While a stain of insecurity and violence spreads across Afghanistan, General Petraeus is on a media blitz, disingenuously trying to sell the idea of "oil spots" of "progress" in Afghanistan. Petraeus' goal is clear: Despite overwhelming public opposition, he wants more time to experiment with counterinsurgency in other people's homelands, and he's putting the half-billion-dollar public relations machine of the Pentagon into high gear to hammer his message into our heads. The first journalist on his media blitz, NBC's David Gregory, utterly failed to sufficiently challenge Petraeus on his easily disproved spin, reminding one of the media's negligence during the Iraq War debate. CBS' Katie Couric is next at bat. We need her to do better.
All of the information Couric needs to blow apart Petraeus' happy talk is already in the public domain, just as it was during the run-up to the Iraq debacle. For example:
- The recent (and Orwellian) Report on Progress toward Security and Stability (.pdf) in Afghanistan from the Pentagon discloses that violence is up 87 percent over the same period last year, and that despite the massive increase in troops over the reporting period, the insurgency continues to grow in size and capability. More alarmingly, the report discloses that the Afghan government is falling further behind in "sympathy" or "support" from populations in the key districts of the country.
- IED attacks roughly doubled over the past year.
- Civilian deaths are rising precipitously, and Afghans blame Petraeus' forces not only for the deaths they cause directly, but for bringing the conflict with them as they press into new areas and failing to protect civilians from insurgent violence.
- The Afghan NGO Safety Office says that the single biggest threat to aid workers in Afghanistan is the armed gangs backed by the Local Defense Initiative, an ISAF/Afghan government program to create local "security" forces.
Any of these facts would blow a major hole in Petraeus' spin campaign, and we need journalists on the media tour to confront the general with them. Unfortunately, in the past decade, when it's come to accountability journalism aimed at military (or militarist) spin, the American media doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation.
In When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina, W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston wrote:
We now know that officials in the Bush administration built a case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq that was open to serious challenge. We also know that evidence disputing ongoing official claims about the war was often available to the mainstream press in a timely fashion. Yet the recurrent pattern, even years into the conflict, was for the official government line to trump evidence to the contrary in the news produced by mainstream news outlets reaching the preponderance of the people.
Part of the reason the Iraq story was written much as the Bush administration told it is that nearly every installment was well staged and fed expertly to reporters... [P]lenty of other sources and bodies of evidence outside official Washington power circles could have been elevated to challenge the administration's stories, but those challenges either did not emerge aggressively or were reported only in passing...
David Gregory's treatment of Petraeus ("Look! The general is physically fit and press savvy!") contained alarming echoes of the dynamic described by Bennett, Lawrence and Livingston. All the information Gregory needed to challenge Petraeus was available before the interview, yet he failed to press Petraeus on the patently false claims of "progress," if "progress" refers to any widespread trend strategically relevant to counterinsurgency doctrine. For all the apologies we heard from the press after their failures on the Iraq War, Gregory's failure on Meet the Press this past Sunday shows we're in danger of seeing a repeat. Couric must ask tougher questions during her interview.
The list above includes just the few easily accessible bits of the mosaic of disaster created by the U.S.'s troop-heavy, military-centric policy in Afghanistan. Couric could do us all a real service by bringing just a few of these facts with her when she interviews Petraeus and setting a real example for accountability journalism for her peers rounding out the media tour. In her preview piece on her interview with Petraeus, she mentions the general's "oil spots" comment. Couric should ask Petraeus about the real "oil spots" spreading across Afghanistan: American blood and treasure seeping into the landscape of a war that's not making us safer and that's not worth the cost.
Sign our act.ly petition to Couric to push her to challenge Petraeus on his claims of "progress" and on his attempt to extend the Afghanistan War.
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