In the fall of 2002 -- a little more than a year after the Al Qaeda attacks on the United States set off a chain of events that soon toppled the brutal, misogynistic Taliban regime in Kabul, and well before the fateful and misguided decision to invade and occupy Iraq -- I went to Afghanistan to begin shooting a documentary about the plight of women there.
Before departing, I contacted each of the major American television news networks. I explained that I would be in Kabul for weeks with a film crew, and could inexpensively shoot and deliver reports on Afghan women -- or indeed any other topic of interest to them about a country that still harbored the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden.
No one was interested.
Instead the networks were focused on the next invasion -- one every news executive seemed sure was coming, and one they all appeared to be supporting -- in Iraq. They were puzzled as to why I was pitching stories about Afghanistan, when the story there was "over" and they, at least, had moved on. It was as if everyone -- but me -- had received a news memo from on high. When I persisted, they rolled their eyes and indicated I was naïve at best -- even after, bowing to reality, I suggested a report called "Afghanistan -- the Last Iraq."
"Didn't you hear what I just told you?" one insider asked. "We're not doing Afghanistan -- we're only doing Iraq!"
My conversations and frustrations came back to mind -- seven years later -- as reports proliferated that the "'forgotten war' in Afghanistan, as news outlets had once called it, is suddenly very visible." NBC News' chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel -- who made his name covering the war in Iraq -- put it well when he spoke to the New York Times from Kabul this week: "It's like the Baghdad class of 2003 is now the Kabul class of 2009."
Yes, it's commencement time again for the foreign correspondents' floating crap game, as the likes of Engle and Lara Logan of CBS News relocate and descend en masse on a war that has been so "forgotten, undercovered and just plain ignored" that coverage of it filled a mere one percent of the overall 'news hole' for the past two years, according to the media-monitoring Project for Excellence in Journalism. (A war so forgotten, undercovered and just plain ignored that even the Paper of Record still can't get the most basic facts about it right: the first version of the Times article "misstated the geographical relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is to the east of Afghanistan, not to the west." But let's not be too nitpicky!)
As Mark Jurkowitz , PEJ's associate director told NPR's On The Media program, "That's about 1/16th as much coverage as the war in Iraq got" from the U.S. media. "Even in the beginning of 2009," Jurkowitz continued, "It still only covered about two percent of the news hole."
Now there's been what Jurkowitz and others are calling "a sea change," and Afghanistan is suddenly 'hot' for the first time in years. Typically, however, the trigger for the spike in coverage comes not from what's going on over in Afghanistan, but instead "from the U.S. domestic policy debate," as Jurkowitz noted. "So one thing we've learned, as we watch how wars are covered, is that a big chunk of it really does revolve around the U.S. policy debate. And one reason - and not to simplify it - is frankly it's a lot easier to put reporters in Washington, D.C. than it is in Kabul."
While it's undoubtedly true that safety and security concerns, coupled with continuing financial woes, make Afghanistan a difficult place to cover, it's also true, as "some journalists" told Brian Stelter in the Times, that "Afghanistan was being neglected long before the most recent round of media cutbacks," and that "the main TV networks in the United State almost completely withdrew from Afghanistan as attention shifted to Iraq."
To his credit, NBC's Engel, "echoing the remarks of other correspondents," did admit that the war in Afghanistan was "ignored because of Iraq," but he also noted that for several years the conflict there "was really in a holding pattern." Engel now says he plans to spend more than half of his days in Afghanistan in the coming year.
What Engel doesn't say, but what we all now know - the biggest dirtiest, and most obvious "little secret" in the news biz - is that virtually all of the mainstream media in this country went in the tank for the Bush Administration over Iraq, accepting uncritically its flawed explanations for the invasion and occupation and then unleashing their 'weapons of mass deception,' as they essentially turn into cheerleaders in order to build public support for an unnecessary and unjust war that quickly turned into a calamity.
So here's a brief commencement speech for the correspondents in the "Kabul class of 2009," who are now belatedly turning their attention to the country where the 9/11 terror attacks were really hatched: "Do your homework -- so the rest of us don't get schooled again!"