The Campaign Spot

How the Media’s ‘Narrative’ Obsession Leaves the Public Ill-Informed

There’s no point in spinning it; it’s a grim Morning Jolt today. Besides the latest on the continuing violent protests outside American embassies around the world, the Chicago Teachers’ Union seems determined to bring Rahm Emanuel to his knees . . . and today’s featured segment is a look at how the media’s obsession with “narratives” leaves some vital news stories relatively not discussed, serving the country poorly:

How Media Bias Leaves Some Life-and-Death Issues Unexamined and Not Discussed

Conservatives have griped, louder and louder, about media bias for decades now. Obviously, those complaints fall on deaf ears, or most folks in the mainstream media find them baseless, or unimportant. (Every once in a while, somebody acknowledges it, and says it’s a problem . . . and then nothing happens.)

But I would urge those within the MSM who think of themselves as among the best at informing the public to ask whether the obsession with “narratives” — think of prepackaged storylines, tropes, if you will, with noble heroes often within one political party and nefarious, retrograde, and sinister forces within the other — is doing a good job of keeping the public well-informed with the circumstances our troops face in Afghanistan.

Chalk me up as one of those folks increasingly wary about our involvement in Afghanistan. The problem is not that our cause isn’t just or the Taliban doesn’t deserve every bit of ordnance we drop on them. But I just find myself wondering what we’ll achieve in year twelve that we haven’t achieved in years one through eleven. If we had an ally we could completely trust, the entire situation would look different. But as the war continues, our “ally” looks less and less trustworthy.

At the end of August, when the press was obsessing over Todd Akin and whether Clint Eastwood had embarrassed himself at the Republican convention, there was this other news story developing halfway around the world:

Rogue Afghan soldiers and police turning their weapons on their allies are now the leading cause of death for NATO troops. On Aug. 28 a man wearing an Afghan army uniform opened fire on Australian soldiers in the southern province of Uruzgan, killing three and wounding two.

That attack brought to 15 the total number of NATO personnel killed in so-called “green-on-blue” assaults in August — and raises serious doubts about the alliance’s war strategy, which calls for close cooperation between foreign and Afghan troops as the Afghans gradually assume responsibility for their own security.

Of the other 35 international troops who died in Afghanistan this month, 12 were killed by Improvised Explosive Devices and nine died in helicopter crashes. Insurgent gunfire and a suicide bomber accounted for the remaining fatalities.

Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, told Danger Room he didn’t know why the Afghan troops turned their weapons on their foreign allies. He implied the “sacrifices associated with fasting” during the the Muslim holy month of Ramadan might have played a role — then quickly qualified the remark, saying Ramadan wasn’t exclusively the problem. In any event, “there is an erosion of trust that has emerged from this,” Allen said in a separate interview.

In a “normal” media and political environment, this would be a huge deal, with less focus upon which lawmaker or party should be blamed than a national debate on the more basic questions: 1) Is our mission in Afghanistan worth the price we’re playing? 2) Is our mission achievable with rate of violent betrayal on the part of the Afghan forces we’re seeing? 3) If we do believe that our mission is necessary, then how do we ensure the safety of our troops and weed out the infiltrators within the Afghan forces?

If this were occurring under a Republican president, the declaration of defeat and comparisons to Vietnam would be loud, incessant, shrill and ubiquitous. Because this is occurring under a Democratic president, you get intermittent coverage — the media checks the boxes, but there’s no steady drumbeat, no newsweekly cover pieces, no hour-long specials on the cable networks, few columns in the Washington Post and New York Times about it. None of the biggest movers and shakers have decided that this must be a national conversation, on par with, say, the national week-long dissection of Todd Akin’s unfamiliarity with basic human biology. We may cynically conclude that there’s no real pro-Obama or anti-GOP spin that can be put on this story — there’s no easily discernible angle to advance the cause of the Left — and so the story doesn’t quite disappear but it just bobs up and down every now and then.

I mention this because it happened again this weekend:

Four U.S. troops were killed Sunday near a remote NATO installation in southern Afghanistan when a member of the Afghan security forces opened fire on them, military officials said.

On Saturday, an Afghan gunman thought to belong to the local police killed two British soldiers in southern Helmand province.

The six casualties brought to 51 the number of coalition forces — most of them Americans — killed by their Afghan partners this year.

In case you’re wondering, President Obama did offer a comment on this in mid-August. Nothing wrong with his statement, but not many specifics, just a general sense of “we’re working on it”:

“Obviously we’ve been watching with deep concern these so-called green-on-blue attacks,” Obama said during a surprise appearance before the White House press corps. “We are already doing a range of things, and we’re seeing some success when it comes to better counterintelligence, making sure that the vetting process for Afghan troops is stronger. And we’ve got what’s called the Guardian Angel program, to make sure that our troops aren’t in isolated situations that might make them more vulnerable. But obviously we’re going to have to do more, because there has been an uptick over the last 12 months on this.”

Judging by what we’ve seen in recent weeks, those “range of things” aren’t really having success. There’s room for a much more complicated story than “Obama stinks” or “the Afghanis stink,” but the media has to set out to tell those stories.

But the desire to reduce every development in the news to “here’s the latest reason why our preferred candidate rocks and your candidate stinks” means that A) certain stories get ignored or downplayed and B) something like Romney’s reaction to attacks on our embassy are treated as twenty times as important as the actual attacks themselves.


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