It was either me or Jimmy Carter who promised that “I will never lie to you” but I did in July when I pledged no more breaks in 2021 for The Will Bunch Newsletter. Actually, I discovered I had one extra week of vacation, for which I’m currently packing my swim trunks. So no new newsletter next Tuesday — but you will hear from us in a special email survey that will help both me and The Inquirer to serve you better. Please take a moment to fill it out.
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How the ‘objective’ news media completely lost its mind over Afghanistan, Biden
Make no mistake, last week’s dramatic collapse of the Afghanistan government, propped up by the U.S. for nearly 20 years, and the fall of Kabul to Taliban forces, was the kind of world-changing event — with indelible images of chaos and despair — that someone at the top of Big Media lives to cover. But for many leading journalists in New York and D.C., the abrupt end of the suddenly-not-”Forever War” seemed bizarrely personal.
Media stars at places like the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN who swore an oath of straight-down-the-middle objectivity (”We’re not at war ... we’re at work,” the Post’s Marty Baron said calmly as Donald Trump was shredding the Constitution) during the last tangled presidency now didn’t try to hide their anger at President Biden whom they blamed for the chaotic scene, and they stuck to their narrative of a total botch by POTUS 46 even after the mass evacuation hit a peak efficiency not seen since the Berlin Airlift.
Even after working in newsrooms for the last 40 years, I’m struggling to understand the impertinent snark of a working newsman like CBS White House correspondent Bo Erickson, who tweeted Sunday night at the White House staff hectoring them to make sure Biden saw a CBS poll showing a dip in his approval rating after Kabul fell.
The New York Times led the paper over the weekend with a “news analysis” by Peter Baker that implied that Biden — in ending a war that had dragged on for nearly two decades, in a move supported by a strong majority of regular, non-journalist Americans — had trashed his long reputation for empathy and that the threat to the safety of U.S. allies also showed incompetence on a level rivaling Trump. The story was published on a weekend when the Pentagon evacuated a stunning 11,000 people in an operation in which not a single American has died.
CNN’s Brianna Keilar — anchor of its not-opinion morning show “New Day,” but also the wife of an active-duty Green Beret who writes frequently of being a military spouse — has also struggled to contain her anger at the Afghan withdrawal, writing an analysis and tweeting frequently about the “moral injury” of it all. Big-time journalists like Keilar or her CNN colleague Jake Tapper — whose reporting on U.S. troop valor in Afghanistan became a book and a movie, The Outpost — have a personal connection to these events that they don’t seem to feel for the world’s other tough stories like (for example) China’s ethnic cleansing of its Uighurs.
The problem is that the average American who’ll never go to Afghanistan is totally dependent on the news media to understand what is happening there. The chaos and “Biden fiasco” narratives seem hard to unlock, even as the accelerating success of the evacuation seems to have become the more up-to-date news. What’s more, the endless replays of desperate Afghans clinging to the wing of a U.S. jet, now several days old, seem to crowd out needed discussions of issues like how America spent more than $80 billion training an Afghan army that then refused to fight, or when the so-called experts who promoted this war think would have been a better time to end it, as the 20th anniversary loomed.
It’s true that for the journalists who know Afghanistan best because they spent time there, the Taliban takeover poses a real threat to the lives and safety of the people they worked with as translators or drivers, or their activist or government sources. It’s human nature that they’d support the status quo that offered their personal friends the most protection, even as everyday citizens were right to ask why were still in Afghanistan after 20 years and $2.2 trillion.
Other factors are in play, too. Like the U.S. troops who fought there, images suggesting the long war was, in the end, meaningless are a tough pill to swallow for some journalists who built their reputations as hard-nosed war correspondents. What’s more, as many commentators have noted, mainstream journalists too often muddle centrist political positions — like support for America’s “forever wars” — with proving their lack of the liberal bias the media is so often accused of. Tacitly supporting war is seen as a sign of seriousness, even through after the utter folly of America’s role in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan it’s impossible to fathom why.
That last point is so frustrating because a few of us journalists who aren’t drunk on Beltway Kool-Aid had fervently hoped that Big Media had learned its lesson back in 2003, when so many swallowed Team Bush’s lies on Iraq — hook, line and sinker — while dismissing anti-war voices as “dirty (bleep)ing hippies.” Clearly, they did not. Any true accounting for America’s longest — and most ridiculous — war requires that the media explain its role in perpetuating it.
Yo, do this
Admit it: Figuring out what the hell happened to the American Dream of college is in the zeitgeist right now. Yeah, it’s the subject of my May 2022 book but it also is the ivy-covered foundation for Netflix’s newest hit limited series, The Chair — meeting the course requirement for the sophomore year of the pandemic for a new show that’s actually funny. A target as big as political correctness in the English department of a modern elite university is pretty hard to miss, though.
Sometimes the best podcasts aren’t the hot new ones but those that have been chugging away for years, before you even discovered the format. Film critic Karina Longworth launched her You Must Remember This podcast in 2014 so there are dozens of great episodes about Hollywood’s controversies and scandals of the last 100 years. So far I’ve listened to her seasons on Charlie Manson and the race issues around Disney’s Song of the South — all proof that for the movies, the past isn’t even past.
Ask me anything
Question: When will vaccines become mandatory? — Via Linda Hisken (@Hiskylin) on Twitter
Answer: Hopefully, Linda ... right now! The FDA’s announcement Monday of full-fledged approval for the Pfizer vaccine (with its utterly bizarre new name of Comirnaty) removes the biggest legal and psychological barrier to requiring a jab that was previously only approved for emergency use. (Presumably the Moderna shot is not far behind.) The Pentagon has already mandated the vaccine, and many schools and corporations should be next. As they should be. You have a right not to be inoculated, but going to school or work or a concert or a baseball game is a privilege, one that you earn by respecting the safety of your fellow humans.
As a piece of filmmaking, 1970′s Patton is revered by critics — especially for George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning performance as Gen. George S. Patton, the crusty and occasionally foul-mouthed World War II U.S. general. As a piece of political inspiration, the history of Patton (which also won that year’s Academy Award for best picture) is a little more murky. The film had no bigger fan than the then-occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Richard Nixon, who screened the film at least two and probably three times during the fraught winter and spring of 1970. Patton’s tough-guy, consequences-be-damned approach, according to historians, may have convinced Nixon to risk that April’s invasion of Cambodia as a bold gambit to win the Vietnam War.
Things didn’t work out as well as WWII had. Not only did the 1970 operation not break the resolve of the North Vietnamese, but its destabilization of Cambodia plunged that nation into years of conflict that ended in the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, who killed millions. Nixon also destabilized the homefront, as campus protests led to the Kent State massacre, a wound from which America never fully recovered. I mention this history because Donald Trump — in last week’s rally in COVID-19-wracked Cullman, Ala. — fired up his crowd before taking the stage by showing the movie’s iconic opening speech. This will not end well, either.
Inquirer reading list
Only one column this week because — in prepping for that above-mentioned vacation — I was given some extra time to work on an essay on the true meaning of 9/11′s 20th anniversary. Look for it in early September. Meanwhile, my column that ran last Sunday sought to look at the question of welcoming Afghan refugees to America — and, specifically, Pennsylvania — through the prism of the remarkable, and seemingly unlikely, story of Philadelphia’s highly successful Vietnamese community.
I talk a lot about my baseball “second wife,” the Phillies, and I’ve been fairly critical this year, especially when learning that the team wasn’t just lagging on the field but trailing much of the league in getting vaccinated for COVID-19, putting not only the Phillies’ playoff chances but also the health of the people around them at risk. But comes now an ultimate Philadelphian — the Quizzo legend known as “Johnny Goodtimes” but actually named Johnny Nottingham — to truly rip them for their coronavirus failings. “When the time came to be a part of the community in the midst of the greatest challenge to America in our lifetimes, they failed,” he writes in The Inquirer Opinion section. “Miserably.” A healthy community has healthy conversations like this one, thanks to the support of a healthy news organization. Support The Inquirer by subscribing, and keep the argument going.