Monday, February 1, 2010

International talks begin, but where are the news reports?

Talks Begin On Way Forward In Afghanistan

For this week’s posting, I tried to find a recent article from a U.S media source that framed the fight in Afghanistan in its broadest international and historical sense. This was for two reasons: in order to contrast with last week’s entry, which focused on a single U.S. military officer’s experience, and to determine the extent to which a U.S. media outlet is able to describe the deeper historical aspects which we read about in In The Graveyard of Empires.

In searching for an article about the war in Afghanistan, one that fit with the above description or not, I was struck by how little recent information was available on the subject. Searching through various media archives, I saw a pattern emerging: since the weeks leading up to and directly after President Obama’s December 1st announcement that the U.S. would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the number of stories has dropped significantly, a pattern which I saw reflected in other U.S. news sources as well. Rather, other domestic and international stories seem to have commanded the most attention: the ongoing crisis in Haiti, the recent State of the Union address, and the national deficit. While this is a mere observation and is not backed by any empirical data, it was still surprising that the war in Afghanistan received so little attention in the media. It seemed to me that in the free market of ideas, Afghanistan was losing ground to other more prominent issues.

The NPR report that I chose to examine centers on the international conference on Afghanistan, which was held in London last Thursday between the foreign ministers of NATO countries along with leaders of Japan, China and India. Framed as a conversation between Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep and correspondent Renee Montagne, the report does a fair job discussing the key issues to be addressed at the conference as well as likely roadblocks.

At the start of the dialogue, Montagne notes that the last time a meeting of such size and scope was held was more than eight years ago in December of 2001, after the Taliban had been driven out of Afghanistan. She also mentions that at this last meeting, leaders in attendance were responsible for “more or less anointing” Hamid Karzai as president, and for “divvying up the various jobs of rebuilding Afghanistan’s broken institutions” between various foreign partners – choices which have unquestionably contributed to the situation which Afghanistan finds itself today. Despite the brevity of the interview (slightly more than four minutes), I was pleased that Montagne attempted to place the conference within a relevant yet concise historical context.

Another key issue raised by the report is President Karzai’s strategy of “reaching out” to “lower level [Taliban] fighters and commanders,” a strategy which has attracted support from U.S. and NATO leaders as well. In Montagne’s description, we see an apparent avoidance of more context-laden terms such as terrorist and insurgent. When such words are used within the report, they are identified as terminology used by other individuals and institutions: “[McChrystal’s] own counter-insurgency strategy” and the qualification of the word “unreconcilable.” Montagne’s avoidance of more politically charged language creates in the piece a more restrained and “objective” tone (though the absolute lack of subjectivity is highly questionable).

Overall, the report did a fair job presenting the information in a relevant and concise manner, which has to some extent become the hallmark of NPR reporting. Also of importance is the fact that the report was created for radio broadcast, which imposes natural constraints on the length and the level of detail of any given story. In summary, I credit the report with high marks for its historical context and its inclusion of perspectives from leaders outside the U.S., as well as its avoidance of politically charged terminology. However, it was a very short report that was unable to go into any significant depth, and I would encourage NPR and other media outlets to increase the amount of stories devoted to Afghanistan, despite the prominence of other domestic and international concerns.

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