Gauging Seriousness

by Joshua Foust on 2/26/2010 · 4 comments

In 2008, when Afghanistan was just coming back onto the media’s radar, the New York Times ran a story with a sobering metric:

Coverage of the war in Afghanistan has increased slightly this year, with 46 minutes of total coverage year-to-date compared with 83 minutes for all of 2007. NBC has spent 25 minutes covering Afghanistan, partly because the anchor Brian Williams visited the country earlier in the month. Through Wednesday, when an ABC correspondent was in the middle of a prolonged visit to the country, ABC had spent 13 minutes covering Afghanistan. CBS has spent eight minutes covering Afghanistan so far this year.

ABC has since vastly expanded to cover Afghanistan’s bizarre variety of nightlife, among other topics. Both NBC and CBS have expanded their coverage, according Andrew Tyndall: 556 minutes of coverage in 2009, nearly five times 2008.

Mid-2008 also saw this bit of LOL:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Lara Logan
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Vancouverage 2010

So that’s CBS’ Lara Logan, complaining about “arm chair academics” who flit about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan learning nothing. She also complains that the coverage of the wars are very shallow, and that if she had to watch the news here she would blow her brains out. She also says that her bosses said “one guy in uniform looks like another” when she embedded with the Navy SEALs, and that they didn’t care about Afghanistan in the slightest.

It makes for an interesting contrast for when the Holy Demigods at CBS decide that Afghanistan is, in fact, an important story worth devoting resources to. It resulted in one of the shallowest, most frustrating pieces of journalism I’ve seen yet about Afghanistan—and I used to blog about Ann Marlowe almost weekly.

Indeed, there is a rich irony in a lot of TV personalities complaining and moaning—in this case, literally, for years—about how shallow and uninformative the news is while they continue to file stories that are shallow and uninformative. Print reporters are another story entirely—there are puds, but there are also some brilliant journalists doing stellar work. TV? Not so much.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Guy February 26, 2010 at 7:12 pm

There are some good TV journos (i.e.Vaughn Smith’s recent reportage for C4 in the UK). Problems are thricefold:
1) Its depressing.
People quite simply don’t want to watch Afghanistan. They don’t understand it, the news is usually awful and its always the same. It bombs in the ratings so documentaries don’t get made. Hence the need to plonk someone foxy like Lara Logan in front of the camera so the audience will actually watch.
2) Its complicated.
TV news teams do everything from celebrity’s to domestic politics to human interest to foreign events. Unsurprisingly most of them therefore have very shallow knowledge of the subject (hence the rise of the ‘expert’). So they frequently don’t understand the story, can’t connect the dots, don’t know who to call and therefore miss or misrepresent the story (Seriously, the stories I could tell).
3) We’ve got no cash.
War is expensive. Knowledge is expensive. Every channel has ever decreasing market-shares of the viewing population. Hence the need to use stringers, hire ‘experts’ and a lack of dedicated, knowledgeable correspondents. And the steady celebrityisation of TV- the old 60 Minutes would never have published Logans goddam-awful report.

TV news is a lousy way to report complicated stories because its a very shallow medium. You can break a story, you can tug a heartstring, you can shape the debate but you can’t explain in anything even approaching academic rigour. And documentaries, which can, get low ratings and never have enough money (unless you’re Ken ‘Pillock’ Burns) to ever reach their potential- if they’re even commissioned in the first place (trust me- I’ve tried).

Put it this way, at least TV is still better than videogames…just check out the new MoH game:

Baildog February 26, 2010 at 7:59 pm

TV news is good for one thing: initial reports on breaking news, when they have cameras on-scene. Other than that, the only reason to monitor it is to see what the sheeple are being fed.

Grant February 26, 2010 at 8:25 pm

For a class project I actually looked at how often Afghanistan was reported in the news in certain periods of time. Admittedly reporting has gone up, but it seems that Iraq still gets nearly twice as much reporting even now. On another note I’m forced to agree with Lara Logan (whoever she may be) on this one. There’s a reason I look at British reporting first.

Michael February 27, 2010 at 12:10 pm

The way she describes her 6-month stint in Afghanistan is seemingly at odds with the report she came back with… “raids with SEALs going after high-value wanted targets” …but didn’t her report instead cover Green Berets and training of Afghan soldiers? Or were there multiple different reports she came back with?

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