Is Perspective-Free Journalism Really “Journalism”?

If the fall of Afghanistan proved anything — aside from the fact that we set ourselves up for failure (alongside the Afghanis who helped us) the instant we landed in country — it’s how little perspective our news media brings to work each day. We knew lack of perspective (like failure of imagination) was a chronic journalistic problem throughout the Trump years — that’s both his pursuit of power and his abuse of it. The news media has always accorded wealthy, white, male Christians undue deference, normalizing their criminality like it was part of the architecture. It’s utter nonsense to think our press begins telling any news story from a genuinely neutral position. The playing field we all step onto is heavily skewed in one direction. If you don’t report that at the start — and if that fact doesn’t inform every last bit of your reporting than, really, you’re telling some other story about an imaginary world that only looks like ours. If you cannot report that bit of perspective because you can’t see it, then what you’re doing every day to pay the rent or the mortgage isn’t journalism.

What’s happening in Afghanistan is a human tragedy of monstrous proportions. What’s about to happen to the women of Afghanistan is even more monstrous. It’s impossible not to be emotionally gripped by video of the genuine terror all those desperate Afghanis thronging Kabul’s airport are feeling. But, leadership demands reacting with one’s head and not one’s heart. One must take off all blinders and see the world for what it is — in realpolitik terms. The reason we were still in Afghanistan is because, up till now, we have refused to see the world as it is. Wanting to make the world a better place for everyone in it is a lovely ideal. But doing good is way more complex than that especially when the good involves changing another culture’s culture or trying to install a form of government that you yourself haven’t mastered.

Journalists describing their own arduous route to the Kabul airport mention having to pay bribes at various points along the way in order to continue along the way. That’s just how it is here, they point out. It’s how it is in a lot of places where they don’t have dynamic economies and corruption is the business model. Now, right there, each and every journalist on the ground is providing deep perspective about the rules on the ground. Put all judgment aside — whether paying bribes is good, bad or a necessary evil. And don’t forget: Afghanistan is only a country because a Western colonial power made it one, drawing up borders that never existed before in the tribal lands where those borders got drawn.

One of those lines got drawn right through the Pashtuns’ tribal territory. One second they were all in one territory, the next, some of them were Afghanis and the rest Pakistanis. The border may have made the Afghani Pashtun Afghani on paper, it did not make them Afghani in their hearts.

There’s yet another layer of complexity here that needs to be in our collective perspective but isn’t yet. Sarah Chayes covered the Taliban’s fall for NPR back in 2001. After reporting from Kandahar — the Taliban’s capitol — Sarah returned and set up base there. She stayed for a decade and “…ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” This Western journalist has very real perspective about the topic she’s writing on. Her knowledge isn’t just surface detail, it’s cultural and deep. She knows whereof she speaks.

Four things brought us to this awful moment, Chayes writes (and I recommend that you read her reporting yourself!): Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it, Pakistan, Hamid Karzai and self-delusion. Pakistan is the key. Pakistan is behind most of the other three items on Chayes’ list. To be fair, corruption being a human frailty no matter the country, impoverished Afghanistan (with no real central government to speak of, no infrastructure, no national identity to rally ’round) was and remains organically corrupt. Again — not judging, just trying to describe accurately (so we can judge later).

Chayes writes —

Do we really suppose the Taliban, a rag-tag, disjointed militia hiding out in the hills, as we’ve so long been told, was able to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international backing? Where do we suppose that campaign plan came from? Who gave the orders? Where did all those men, all that materiel, the endless supply of money to buy off local Afghan army and police commanders, come from? How is it that new officials were appointed in Kandahar within a day of the city’s fall? The new governor, mayor, director of education, and chief of police all speak with a Kandahari accent. But no one I know has ever heard of them. I speak with a Kandahari accent, too. Quetta is full of Pashtuns — the main ethic group in Afghanistan — and people of Afghan descent and their children. Who are these new officials?

In fact, Pashtuns make up 48% of Afghanis. The thing is, they identify as Pashtuns first and Afghanis… maybe second. “Afghani” remains a made up designation. The power inside Pakistan — always looking to improve its situation and why not — benefits from controlling not only the Pashtuns but — look at it from their point of view — controlling Afghanistan, the country on the other side of that made up border. Way better to have a staunch ally there than a foe. That’s the context for this —

The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. It even conducted market surveys in the villages around Kandahar, to test the label and the messaging. “Taliban” worked well. The image evoked was of the young students who apprenticed themselves to village religious leaders. They were known as sober, studious, and gentle. These Taliban, according to the ISI messaging, had no interest in government. They just wanted to get the militiamen who infested the city to stop extorting people at every turn in the road.

Chayes points out “both label and message were lies”. Of course they were!

Within a few years, Usama bin Laden found his home with the Taliban, in their de facto capital, Kandahar, hardly an hour’s drive from Quetta. Then he organized the 9/11 attacks. Then he fled to Pakistan, where we finally found him, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, practically on the grounds of the Pakistani military academy. Even knowing what I knew, I was shocked. I never expected the ISI to be that brazen.

Meanwhile, ever since 2002, the ISI had been re-configuring the Taliban: helping it regroup, training and equipping units, developing military strategy, saving key operatives when U.S. personnel identified and targeted them. That’s why the Pakistani government got no advance warning of the Bin Laden raid. U.S. officials feared the ISI would warn him.

By 2011, my boss, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban were a “virtual arm of the ISI.”

Sarah Chayes, The Ides Of August

As for Karzhai — our choice to pilot Afghanistan after we ousted the Taliban, was “in fact the go-between who negotiated the Taliban’s entry into Afghanistan in 1994! Chayes says “It is my belief that Karzai may have been a key go-between negotiating this surrender, just as he did in 1994, this time enlisting other discredited figures from Afghanistan’s past, as they were useful to him.” Think about this. Chayes can’t say this is a fact because she’s still a journalist at heart and a damned good one. But, she is willing to connect dots that demand connecting if we’re to truly understand what’s happening in Afghanistan with any sort of perspective.

Chayes concludes —

One final point. I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome. Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above — corruption and Pakistan — are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high.

True leadership — what Joe Biden did and is doing — requires taking those political risks. We fulfilled our original mission — oust the Taliban, get bin Laden and stop Afghanistan from being a terrorist haven quickly. In fact, we could have gotten bin Laden when he was holed up in Tora Bora. We didn’t — a choice made by George W. Bush and Company. We should have exited Afghanistan right about then. It would have messy in its own way as imaginary country Afghanistan tried to set up a government for itself. Of course the Pashtuns would have taken part and if the Pakistani intelligence service wanted to infiltrate them whether as Taliban or some other entity? It would have been easy.

This is just how it is on the ground. It’s the culture — good, bad or indifferent. We can judge it if we like but that won’t change it. And, really, corruption is entirely relative. From the Pashtuns point of view, the West is corrupt. Like everyone else, what they really object to is corruption that benefits the other guy.

If you’re going to report this world journalistically — and by “report”, I mean, at the top of your game — you must have this corruption in mind as you survey the landscape. You also have to understand the corruption’s nature. You have to appreciate the role corruption plays in quotidian life. And you have to understand not just the neighborhood you’re standing in but the entire environment itself. Journalism demands a holistic approach. The details of any one story are vital — bore deeply! But detail divorced from the Big Picture they’re part of can easily deceive. It’s like thinking a piece of the mosaic is the mosaic. No — it isn’t.

Our news media, being corporate, is organically corrupt. The corporation’s fiduciary responsibility is to its own survival. Yeah, sure — most of what any corporation does is within the rules. But every corporation seeks to cut corners. To maximize its profits and minimize expenses. Hey — show me an American who’s never cheated on their taxes (still not judging!) and I’ll show you a null set. All corruption starts locally. We all bend the rules to suit ourselves and our needs. We don’t like to think of it as corrupt but it is.

In journalism, corruption often takes the form of access. The White House Press Corps allowed Donald Trump to get away with literal murder. They refused to ask a known liar pointed questions about his lying because they feared Trump would stop letting them ask questions or, worse, banish them from the White House. They compromised their journalistic integrity in order to “be there”. Game already over from the point of view of corruption. You can’t negotiate with corruption. You can’t quid pro quo it.

But, one thing you can do with corruption is aggregate it. Yeah — if you honestly tell a story about corruption, you’re going to describe how a monster got birthed, how it evolved and thrived and then broke free and ran amok. If that corruption is treasonous — as so much of Trump’s corruption is, was and always will be — you’d expect it to be not just a detail of the Trump story but one of its engines. Once you’ve gone and committed treason, there’s no going back. Even the hint of treason should get a good journalist’s Spidey senses tingling.

Our journalists witnessed the above scene — this moment in time — and refused to call it what it so blatantly was. If they’d applied ANY perspective to this moment, the Trump admin would have ended right there and then.

It didn’t.

In their defense, many of the journalists who covered Afghanistan in country saw with their own eyes what American style democracy could do for Afghanistan’s women especially. If only that had been something we could set in concrete… alas, in order to make that inorganic cultural shift work, America would have had to remain in Afghanistan forever. Pakistan did not want us in Afghanistan and, sooner or later (sooner, as we’re learning) would have moved to remove us. They would have tasked the Pashtuns working for them to step up their aggression. The Taliban never left Afghanistan, don’t forget; they lived in Afghanistan and — if they had passports — those passports would have been either Afghani or Pakistani. They could afford to outlast us because they were home already. And they know their “country’s” culture a lot better than we do.

It sucks what’s going to happen to Afghanistan and its women. Whatever we can do to mitigate it, we absolutely should. But we have to stop lying to ourselves about Afghanistan — why we’re there, who the players are and what they want. And we have to stop reporting on Afghanistan like it was some other country. The stone cold reality is that America staying in any would result in an eventual bloodbath. The longer we stayed, the worse the blood bath because the stronger the resentment.

I’m not faulting a single journalist’s emotional response to this tragedy. But, every time their emotions obscure the true story of how we got here, they’re doing much more harm than good. Not all corruption is malignant. Some of it’s entirely cultural. That goes for the culture of journalism too.

Perspective-free journalism is corrupt journalism. It’s not actually journalism therefore — it’s just another variety of corruption.

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