Kabul after the bombings: Blaming the media isn’t working

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    The remarkable thing about the hugely critical coverage of President Biden’s Afghanistan disaster is that it spanned the political spectrum from liberal to conservative outlets.

    Almost everyone, including veteran war correspondents and Pentagon reporters, blamed the administration for its stunning misjudgments in the U.S. withdrawal, contradictory statements and shaky start in evacuating those whose lives are threatened.

    Well, that was then. More than a week after the fall of Kabul, some left-wing commentators are mounting a defense of Biden that goes something like this:

    It wasn’t his fault.

    It was Trump’s fault.

    Things aren’t as bad as they seem.

    Actually, they’re going remarkably well.

    This isn’t really changing the public perception that the Biden administration owns this debacle, as reflected by the president’s sinking poll numbers. But it suggests that some precincts of the media are reverting to their usual partisan form, trying to put the best face on an awful situation. Such attempts will presumably be shaken by Thursday’s terror bombings at the Kabul airport, and the threats that have slowed the rate of evacuations for Americans and our Afghan allies.

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    What has fueled the negative coverage, in my view, is not just the deteriorating situation but the upbeat assessments by the president, his secretary of state and other top officials that are flatly contradicted by the harsh realities in Afghanistan. If journalism doesn’t fact-check these rosy scenarios, how is it of any use to anyone?

    Everything’s safe at the airport, they said, until it wasn’t. There’s no problem getting on these flights, they said, until some planes were taking off nearly empty. Americans aren’t stranded there, they said — but how else could the current situation be described?

    There is no question that Biden inherited a terrible situation with no good choices, and has evacuated more than 100,000 people. But he and his team made spectacular miscalculations in assuming the Afghan government and military could hang on for more than 11 days, and in delaying evacuations and giving up our air base.

    The new line of liberal defense comes from people who would be shouting from the rooftops if all this had gone down while Donald Trump was president. (Yes, despite some stabs at revisionist history, the former president set the withdrawal in motion, released 5,000 Taliban prisoners and reduced most of the American military presence.)

    Apparently, the failure has been manufactured by biased journalists, at least according to New York magazine. “Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a ‘disastrous’ and ‘humiliating’ ‘fiasco,’ in the words of the mainstream media’s ostensibly objective foreign-policy journalists,” the magazine says. “Yet this political fiasco is not a development that the media covered so much as one that it created.”

    Nothing to see here: Everything is proceeding with “relatively little chaos.”

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    Yeah, tell that to the 1,500 Americans (by official estimate) who haven’t gotten out yet, or the perhaps hundreds of thousands of Afghan interpreters, security people and others who aided our 20-year war and whose families are now in danger.

    The writer, Eric Levitz, admits he’s very liberal — what with talk about “George W. Bush’s war crimes and reading Noam Chomsky’s lectures” — so he casts Biden as having made only a few mistakes. But he unloads on correspondents for NBC, CBS, CNN and The New York Times for having “openly editorialized” against White House policy and “assigned Biden near-total responsibility” for the debacle.

    Actually, the coverage has been far more nuanced than he allows. And the most stinging analysis comes from correspondents who know the military and the region and have no political ax to grind.

    When NBC’s Richard Engel calls the collapse a “moment of American humiliation” that will be viewed darkly by history, he’s right.

    When Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin says of the Afghans being left behind that “we did not keep our promise and it is a national shame,” she’s right.

    When CNN’s Clarissa Ward says from the airport that she hasn’t seen a single U.S. plane take off for eight hours, she is reporting what she sees — and there have been times, such as last Saturday, when the flights simply stopped.

    So why would a press corps that had been largely favorable to Joe Biden — especially in contrast to Donald Trump — suddenly turn on him?

    For Levitz, it’s an “imperial” sense that “assumes the U.S. can and should exert decisive influence over global events.” But here he is conflating two different matters.

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    While there are certainly pro-war voices in the media — from pro-Iraq neoconservatives to retired generals — the journalistic consensus is that Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan was both popular and overdue. Few were arguing that we should have stayed and fought that war forever; the press had largely stopped covering it. It’s the execution — and the two decades of misleading assurances about progress there — that were at issue.

    At the same time, experienced journalists warned that a Taliban takeover — which could reestablish Afghanistan as a terrorist haven — was probably inevitable. Biden called it “highly unlikely.” And while we can debate whether leaving a few thousand troops there made more sense, the journalists were right.

    During Thursday night’s news conference, the president told “the most interesting man in the press” — Fox News’ Peter Doocy — that he takes responsibility for the day’s casualties and vowed to hunt down the responsible terrorists. He said Trump had left him with an untenable situation, but ultimately did not pass the buck.

    So the real-world impact of the Afghan collapse is not a media creation. It is a global tragedy for which the media are merely the messengers.

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