Officially, what we might call the establishment press in the United States — your cable news networks, long-running legacy press outlets, and the newer, largely digital publications that rely on close relationships with the powerful for their reporting — aren’t meant to have editorial lines and political viewpoints. But every now and then, whether they realize it or not, they accidentally reveal their political priorities.
If you’re in doubt, just examine the news since Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan began, where you’ll get to see this phenomenon in action firsthand. As images of the Taliban’s stunning conquest of the country melded into images of US forces and their allies’ chaotic evacuation, Biden has gotten a hammering from a US media that has centered Taliban human rights violations in its coverage of the pullout, and united across partisan and ideological lines to push a single, pro-war narrative.
Back With Interest
As Media Matters has documented, establishment outlets have tended to keep their readers and viewers in the dark about the wider political and historical context for the Taliban’s resurgence, casting their takeover instead as a sudden event caused purely by the departure of foreign troops.
While heaping all the blame for the upsetting images on Biden, and throwing around pejoratives like “embarrassment,” “disaster,” and “betrayal,” these outlets have turned to the very same pro-war voices that were responsible for the entire debacle to start with, to be carriers of their preferred message: that the pullout from Afghanistan shouldn’t have happened, and that the US presence there should continue indefinitely.
This isn’t an accident. As one communications professional told Judd Legum last week about trying to get antiwar voices onto television to talk about the pullout:
I’ve been in political media for over two decades, and I have never experienced something like this before. Not only can I not get people booked on shows, but I can’t even get TV bookers who frequently book my guests to give me a call back…
I’ve fed sources to reporters, who end up not quoting the sources, but do quote multiple voices who are critical of the president and/or put the withdrawal in a negative light.
In so many ways this feels like Iraq and 2003 all over again. The media has coalesced around a narrative, and any threat to that narrative needs to be shut out.
Now remember that, according to Andrew Tyndall’s monitoring of Afghanistan war coverage these past twenty years, the conflict’s airtime dropped to an all-time low of just five minutes on CBS, ABC, and NBC evening news broadcasts the whole of last year. This came after years of relative media disinterest in the war: the share of its total news coverage in major outlets through 2010 was a puny 4 percent, and as early as 2006 — five years after the initially triumphant invasion got the most coverage of the war’s two decades — Sherry Ricchiardi was able to write about Afghanistan as “the forgotten war” that was “on the back burner for the overwhelming majority of US news organizations.”
With media focus on the war rising and falling in relation to the level of US troops there, most Americans were spared the grisly details of what their military and the Afghan government forces were doing in the country, especially these last few years, when Trump drew down troops while unleashing a reckless and murderous air war. The media ignored the war while its side was carrying out human rights violations, then ramped up coverage again when only the Taliban were left to commit them.
Everything about the press treatment of Afghanistan — the quantity of coverage, its tone, what’s underlined and what’s left out, who’s asked to weigh in — is a choice. Right now, those choices are being made to punish a president who defied the vast, unelected permanent government within the national security bureaucracy, and to undermine one of his major policy decisions by campaigning for renewed US military involvement.
Look no further than this animated member of the press corps, incredulous at Biden’s statement that there is little US interest in staying longer in Afghanistan, demanding to know if he truly believes there is no national security interest in keeping US troops on the borders of Iran, China, or Tajikistan — “that we should just give that up?”
And those choices have had an impact. The wall-to-wall, almost wholly negative treatment of the withdrawal has brought down both public support for it, as well as for Biden himself (though US public support for getting out of the country more generally is, interestingly, still strong).
End of the Lovefest
What’s so striking about all this is what a turnaround it’s been from the last seven months of Biden coverage. Since at least the general election campaign, when outlets played down Biden’s unexplained absences, ignored the sexual assault accusation against him, and spiked a potentially damaging story about him at the eleventh hour, the press have tended to treat Biden with the softest of kid gloves.
After an inauguration day that reached totalitarian-like levels of leader worship, the White House press corps quickly set the tone with the very first question of the very first press briefing held by press secretary Jen Psaki, when a reporter set her up for an alley-oop with a question about whether she’d be “promoting the interests of the president,” or giving reporters “the unvarnished truth.” Reporters’ infatuation with Psaki was quite possibly reaching its peak just before the withdrawal, when she was bringing the press corps her mother-in-law’s cookies and leading them in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
What soon followed was what felt like a coordinated press campaign to wear America down into submission with round after round of pieces insisting Biden was a transformational, Franklin Roosevelt–style president, even as he dropped core items of his platform and appeared to lose interest in his own agenda. After sixty days, Biden was only the second of the last five presidents to be covered more positively than negatively, according to Pew, the first being Barack Obama.
The past seven months have been immensely frustrating for anyone interested in seeing Biden have an actual transformational presidency, in the sense of benefiting most working Americans instead of a thin slice of the elite. Most coverage and headlines have tended to vastly overstate the ambition and significance of Biden’s progressive measures, usually by uncritically reusing his administration’s often misleading framing.
Look at the way his modest tax increases, which in effect permanently cut taxes for the wealthiest from their already low baseline under Obama, were sold by the press as bold new tax hikes on the rich. Or the way his ban on new oil and gas leases, a mostly symbolic move the fossil fuel industry celebrated for its lack of ambition, was presented as a bold emergency action to tackle climate change.
Well into August, the New York Times and Washington Post were selling Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill on his favored terms — as a bipartisan win, and a historic response to an accelerating climate crisis — by talking about the numbers relative to past, do-nothing administrations, instead of pointing out to people how grossly unserious the numbers are relative to what solving the climate crisis actually demands.
Where Biden’s been not much different from Trump — as on immigration, where he’s continued some of the policies that got Trump labeled a fascist and introduced some outrageous ones of his own — the press has simply played down or ignored it, when they weren’t actively laying the groundwork for Trumpian policy at the border.
Whereas immigration made up 14 percent of all coverage of the Trump administration’s early days, that number has been only 10 and 8 percent of Biden’s early coverage among centrist and left-leaning outlets, respectively. When Biden was poised to let the eviction ban expire and allow millions of Americans to be thrown onto the streets, he reversed the decision at the last minute thanks in no part to the establishment media, which denounced his change of heart.
As we saw with the last-minute reversal of plans to keep refugee numbers at record lows, this administration has shown it will sometimes buckle under sustained criticism. That it often hasn’t felt the need to should prompt serious soul-searching for a press that spent the Trump years talking up its own importance.
Perversely, now that Biden has done something actually potentially transformational — by finally getting troops out of what seemed like a never-ending war — the press have abruptly rescinded their unqualified praise and are applying the kind of microscopic scrutiny and moral outrage they should’ve been spending on all those issues just mentioned, expressly to the policy of ending a costly and aimless war.
Where is this treatment of the administration’s foot-dragging on climate change, just to single out one? If you’re talking human rights, a runaway climate crisis stands to hurt and kill untold magnitudes more women and girls, not to mention boys, men, infants, and the elderly, than the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will. The melting of the Himalayan ice caps alone is predicted to cause food and water shortages for billions of people. We can’t even predict the numbers for how many will die from extraordinary heat waves or the wars that resource shortages will produce, or how many will be turned into refugees when their countries become uninhabitable.
Unfortunately, establishment press outlets are even less interested in climate change than they were in Afghanistan when it was Western troops racking up atrocities. Climate coverage went up 68 percent in 2019, yet it still only made up four hours, or less than 1 percent, of all corporate-broadcast nightly and Sunday morning news shows that year. Despite a series of increasingly scary UN climate reports ringing the alarm bell over the past few years, one of which not even half of the country’s top newspapers bothered to cover, corporate media outlets continue to see the issue as ratings poison and, so, one they can ignore.
Manufacturing Consent…for Whom?
The trouble is, it’s not the human rights or women and girls that’s really driving coverage, but the interests of a vast national security establishment that has spent a lot of effort to capture, cajole, and infiltrate the news media over the past decades, and has long understood that women’s rights can be used to sell a liberal public on that war.
Just as most press outrage over Trump tended to revolve around the few times he defied the national security establishment, whether by insulting the CIA or opting for diplomacy over conflict, one of the few times reporters were willing to be adversarial with Biden during his honeymoon period was when they tried pushing him to be more aggressive against Russia. Whether you’re a soldier or a reporter, you’re just another piece on the board for the military-industrial complex.
It’s not often you get to see a textbook case of the manufacture of consent, out in the open and with everyone watching. But if this is what press outlets are going to do, the least they could do is manufacture it for something that would actually help people, not get more of them crushed to death under American bombs.