Mainstream media’s rush to judgment about the Afghanistan withdrawal might seem like yet one more fallout from the Trump era: another step away from traditional journalistic objectivity and balance.
But the stinging swipes against the Biden administration actually come from an essential part of journalism’s DNA, going back nearly a century. It took a sociologist working more than 40 years ago to figure that out.
Mere hours and days after the withdrawal’s tumultuous start, headlines called it a “fiasco,” one that left U.S. “resolve” in doubt, and heightened “the sense that America’s backing is no longer unbounded.”
Whether or not American support for foreign wars should be “unbounded” was left undiscussed. Many articles and news segments clearly questioned why the war couldn’t just continue indefinitely. One veteran network correspondent insisted the American people “could not summon the will” to keep going, even though the military would have fought for “another 20 years” if asked.
Some of this knee-jerk backlash was undoubtedly tied to the Trump years. The Afghanistan pullout gave the press a chance to show readers and viewers it could be as tough on President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE as it was on President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE, shoring up its non-partisan bona fides.
But a deeper reason can be found in a sociologist's study of reporters. It was published back in 1979 — but many of its observations hold up today.
Sociologist Herbert Gans spent years studying several national newsrooms and published his findings in a book titled “Deciding What’s News.” Gans discovered six ingrained “values” that helped frame the way journalists understood key events. Among them: an expectation of political “altruism,” especially in U.S. foreign policy — an unspoken belief within news organizations that international affairs should be governed by selfless ideals and big goals. Acting out of narrow national interest was considered mercenary and unworthy.
That outlook was most likely shaped during World War II, which was a clear battle between good and evil. It came to be called “The Good War” and was about much more than one country’s insular interests. Reporters have sought to repeat that “good war” narrative in almost every American conflict since.
The early years of the Cold War amplified journalism’s altruistic vision. Correspondents and editors could paint most policy moves — the Berlin Airlift, the space race, Vietnam — as part of a humane campaign against apocalyptic forces.
Vietnam, of course, eventually called that view into question. Then, after the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, foreign affairs entered a gray zone. Gone was the epic contest of values between two opposing super-power ideologies. At times, it was hard for reporters to tell the good guys from the bad guys. But the tendency to see U.S. international and military strategy as dedicated to the greater global good — with national interest secondary at best — didn’t fade.
A clear-cut example of this came in 1991 and the first Gulf War. Iraq invaded Kuwait and — in a bid to control petroleum production — began setting oil fields on fire. President George H.W. Bush pushed to intervene, but protesters insisted that meant sacrificing “blood for oil.”
Everything changed when a Kuwaiti teenager named Nayirah testified to Congress. The 15-year-old claimed she witnessed Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait remove babies from hospital incubators, leaving them to die. Her emotional speech changed the tone of media coverage. Protecting oil was a craven economic concern; saving infants made the Gulf War a humanitarian endeavor.
However, Nayirah’s story was a lie. After the conflict was over, investigations revealed the incubator incidents never happened. Later, it was learned that Nayirah was actually the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US. She most likely came to the attention of Congress through a public relations firm reportedly hired by Kuwait to lobby for military intervention.
Yet, at the time, few questions were asked. Her testimony was quickly accepted — in part — because it matched the preferred media narrative around American foreign policy motivations.
The 9/11 attacks again placed international affairs firmly back in good vs. evil territory. The Afghan conflict blended national interest and noble intentions: The U.S. went after al Qaeda terrorists while also removing an extremist and oppressive Taliban government.
But once the Taliban fled — and especially after Osama bin Laden was killed — the mission moved further into altruism. America's armed forces would now help build a model democratic society, boost human rights, protect universities and guarantee free elections. When the media reported on Afghanistan at all, it was often in support of these efforts — stories about local entrepreneurs, restored museums and budding cultural activities.
But the past 20 years have shown victory in this type of war, however well-intended, is hard to measure: When is nation-building complete? When is diversity respected and democracy cemented? It was the “defeat” of this altruistic mission — the kind of mission journalists find most compelling — that set off angry media reaction to America’s withdrawal over these past two weeks.
Herbert Gans is 94 years old now and probably unable to dive back into contemporary newsrooms. But maybe other sociologists can take up the challenge, helping journalism understand, update and reshape coverage of America’s role overseas.
Journalists themselves already are beginning to examine how and why the media reacted as it did. That’s a good thing.
There’s no doubt that humanitarian and altruistic goals should have a prominent place in U.S. foreign policy, including military action. But when journalists send the message that those goals matter most of all, that they trump national interest, money spent and lives sacrificed, the news media is not serving the public. It’s not giving readers and viewers the kind of full account they need to judge matters of war and peace.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.