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     Jan 6, 2012

Afghanistan: US press withdraws
By Ben Schreiner

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Lost amid the attention paid to the historic United States withdrawal from Iraq has been the fact that nearly 100,000 US troops (and a near equal number of private contractors) remain entrenched in Afghanistan. The 10-year-long war has indeed become what many in the US have deemed the "forgotten war". For just as American troops have withdrawn from Iraq, the American press has largely packed up and withdrawn from Afghanistan.

According to the Pew Research Centerís Project for Excellence in Journalism, coverage of the war in Afghanistan accounted for only

2% of all US press content in 2011.[1] That's down two points from 2010, and three points from 2009. To put this in context, American media coverage of Afghanistan was on par with that of sports in the last year, and only one percent greater than the coverage of celebrity and entertainment related news.

Declining US press coverage of the war has no doubt been hastened by withering resources devoted by major American media outlets to Afghanistan. According to the online press-watch organization, Nieman Watchdog, only five US newspapers now maintain bureaus in Afghanistan, while at any given time a maximum of only ten broadcast correspondents can be found in the country. [2]

This dearth of reporters only exacerbates a wide public ignorance of - and often indifference to - the war amongst the US public. As per John Hanrahan, former executive director of the Fund for Investigative Journalism, states, "The fewer the reporters, the fewer the first-hand accounts needed for citizens to form knowledgeable opinions of the war." [3] It is of little surprise, then, that a 2009 Pew poll found a majority of Americans believe that media coverage of Afghanistan "didn't provide enough background info to follow the news". [4]

But given the clear news value of the conflict in Afghanistan and its relevance to the lives of American citizens, (the war, to date, has seen 1,863 American fatalities and cost nearly $500 billion), why has the American press largely withdrawn?

The typical answer given by the press establishment for the scarcity of coverage is that it the war is simply too costly to cover and of little public interests. As the New York Times' Brian Stelter writes, "The news executives that pay for bureaus in Afghanistan have had to contend with tight news-gathering budgets, safety concerns and, in some cases, a perception that American audiences are not interested in the situation." [5]

To that end, Tony Maddox, executive vice president and managing director of CNN international, argues that, "Inside the United States, you've got audiences that are beginning to suffer from war fatigue." [6] (Afghan "war fatigue" has never been of much concern to the US press).

Such explanations from the American media establishment, however, fail to illuminate the underlying reason behind the shortcomings of US press coverage of the war in Afghanistan. For the decay in coverage is attributable to a problem greater than that of a press corps prioritizing perceived audience preferences to the detriment of news. Instead, the main factor in the decline in war coverage is a systemic failure of the American press brought about by the internalization of an US imperial ideology.

Inevitable failure of imperialism
The American ruling class has seemingly long fancied rendering American imperialism as distinct from that of the imperialism practiced by the empires of epochs past. For it is claimed that American exceptionalism - ie, the idea that the US is the "world's lone indispensable nation", as former secretary of state Madeleine Albright once declared - has enabled the nation to practice a benign form of imperialism.

As US President Barack Obama remarked in commemoration of the Iraq war, "Unlike the old empires, we don't make these sacrifices for territory or for resources. We do it because it's right." [7]

The truth, though, is that there is really little that is unique about the contemporary American style of imperialism. For all empires have tried to couch their conquests in notions of moral superiority. All empires have cloaked their imperialism in the language of "civilizing".

As the British imperialist Joseph Chamberlain argued in 1897, England's imperialism was driven not by a "sense of possession", but rather by a "sense of obligation". And mirroring the sentiments of modern American imperialists, Chamberlain continued: "Our rule does, and has, brought security and peace and comparative prosperity to countries that never knew these blessings before." [8]

Consequently then, claims of exceptionalism to the contrary, the US is no more immune from the coercive effects of imperial thinking than of empires past. For as the late Chalmers Johnson noted:
One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists. They start believing that they are the bearers of civilization, the bringers of light to the "primitives" and "savages" (largely so identified because of their resistance to being "liberated" by us), the carriers of science and modernity to backward peoples, beacons and guides for citizens of the "underdeveloped world". [9]
It is this ideology, that to some is considered very perverse, that has come to be internalized by the US press. In fact, the internalization of this ideology by the American media has occurred to such a degree that the nation's imperial foreign policy is not only beyond media reproach, but is in fact all utterly un-newsworthy.

After all, in the US, as Tom Engelhardt puts it, "War is increasingly a state of being." [10] In this context the true story no longer lies in an ongoing imperial war, that is, not in Afghanistan, but in the next war; in other words, in who next shall be "liberated" by the "indispensable nation".

So it is then that in a year marking the second deadliest year for foreign troops in Afghanistan, stories in the American press on the "threat" from Iran now outpace reports from the war in Afghanistan. The true newsworthy story of the moment for the imperial oriented press is thus whether the benevolent empire shall move to "liberate" Tehran.

This, needless to say, is indicative of the systemic failure of the American media. It is indicative of a press which is wholly incapable of challenging the undemocratic tendencies and forces within the American political system. Obviously, such a press cannot be deemed to be free.

So then, as many believe, it is with having succumbed to the scourge of imperial rot that the US press withdraws from Afghanistan.

1. See here.
2. See here.
3. Ibid.
4. See here.
5. See here.
6. See here.
7. See here.
8. See here.
9. See here.
10. See here.

Ben Schreiner is a freelance writer living in Salem, Oregon, USA.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

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