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The Windowless Room of the Current Event

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Tom Engelhardt. Photo credit: Alton Christensen

Let me start out by arguing a little with your question. It seems to me that media critics often focus on the year’s underreported or even “unreported” stories; and yet, enveloped in a crisis of downsizing, as ads flee newspapers and magazines, the mainstream media does still manage to report on just about everything — if, that is, you’re a news jockey and willing to go looking for it. Generally, we only know about those under- or unreported stories because we’ve read about them somewhere in the mainstream. The real reporting crisis involves the inability of the mainstream to connect the dots, almost any dots, or display any kind of historical memory, or include in its daily reporting the sort of information that would make real sense of the “news.”

Let me give you a perfectly humdrum and typical recent example: Last week, The New York Times featured a front-page piece by Elisabeth Bumiller headlined “Pentagon Says Afghan Forces Still Need Assistance.” It was a perfectly reasonable and informative story based on “a bleak new Pentagon report [that] has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.”  The key conclusion in Bumiller’s piece: with incidents of violence in Afghanistan higher than when the Obama administration’s “surge” began in 2009 and the Taliban “resilient,” it will be a “challenge” to have Afghan forces ready to take over the fighting in 2014, once U.S. combat troops are gone.

There’s only one problem: either Bumiller doesn’t know, or doesn’t care to mention, that some version of the basic finding in that Pentagon report has for years been an Afghan reality. In October 2007, for instance, in a report from the military itself, Colonel Thomas McGrath, then in charge of Afghan army and police training, claimed that he expected “the first independent brigade-size operations to be conducted by Afghan National Army forces sometime in the spring [of 2008].” In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report indicating that only two of 105 army units “are assessed as being fully capable of conducting their primary mission.” In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, Afghan war commander, claimed optimistically that 43 of the 123 units of the Afghan Army could “operate independently” (though he clearly meant small-sized units and was defining “independently” as something more limited than “from all U.S. support”).

A Government Accountability Office report issued early in 2011 indicated that, in 2010, not a single Afghan army unit had been able to operate independently of American forces. In September 2011, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, then in charge of training those same troops, reported that only 2 of 23 brigades could operate independently and, according to the reliable Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room blog, when pressed at a Pentagon news conference, admitted that the real figure was probably zero, since even those two “still require U.S. support for their maintenance, logistics, and medical systems.” Today, as Bumiller reports, with more than $40 billion in U.S. funds spent on training Afghan security forces since 2003, it’s back at one brigade.

In other words, if you look not at a single “bleak” report in 2012, but at years of bleak reports on the subject, the situation comes into focus in a different way. At that point, certain obvious questions arise: What does it mean that, year after year, in response to Afghan army (and police) forces that remain incapable of operating on their own, Washington’s answer is always to pour in more dollars and trainers — assumedly knowing that the same result is likely in store? No less important, why keep calling what you’re writing about the “Afghan” army when its units can’t operate independently of the American one? In the light of recent history, isn’t that a reportorial misnomer? Shouldn’t a militarily incompetent and dependent proxy force, raised up by us and incapable of becoming anything else, be given another title? And what does all this tell you about Washington’s Afghan War?

“In other words, if you look not at a single ‘bleak’ report in 2012, but at years of bleak reports on the subject, the situation comes into focus in a different way.”
But as long as you live, as our media generally does, inside what social critic Christopher Lasch once called “the windowless room of the current event,” such patterns — and questions — are unlikely to arise. So in 2013, when the next Pentagon report on Afghan security forces comes out, expect to read a new set of stories on the surprisingly “bleak” news in it.

Or take quite a different subject: climate change. These days — despite the 2012 presidential campaign’s silence on the subject until Frankenstorm Sandy hit — “extreme weather,” as the TV news generally likes to call it, is regularly headlined. Increasingly often, there is at least passing mention of, or even discussion of, climate change in some of these stories. Again, though, what’s generally striking in mainstream reportage is the way the dots aren’t connected. The issue is less what isn’t reported, than what isn’t included.

After all, this year in American weather has been extraordinary. A partial list of the most salient events would include: the parching of the Southwest, as well as record wildfires, sometimes of staggering proportions in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and across the West; the heat records that made 2012 an “endless summer” and is just about sure to make it the hottest year in the continental U.S. since records began being kept; the devastating drought across the Midwestern bread (or corn) basket and parts of the South, which for many months had 60-65 percent of the country in its grip (and shows no sign of going away this winter) — with damage running into the many tens of billions of dollars; and, of course, the way Sandy, that gigantic storm passing over the heated waters of the Atlantic, surged into New York City and ravaged the New Jersey coast, causing widespread devastation and tens of billions of dollars in damage (while putting climate change back onto the political map).

In other words, consider them all together and it’s been a devastating year. Add in stories like the increasing acidification of ocean waters off both coasts (and the consequent damage being done to shellfish and other sea food), the record melt of Arctic sea ice this summer (which will further warm the planet, ensuring yet worse years to come), the startling melt of the Greenland ice sheet (promising further sea-level rise and greater future storm surges); and don’t forget the news of the record levels of carbon dioxide that were pumped into the atmosphere in 2011 and expectations of a similar release in 2012, and who could deny that it’s been a banner year for climate-change coverage?

And yet try to remember the last time you read in the mainstream (or watched on the TV news), reports not about each of these individual events, but about the whole ball of (melting) wax. How often did you notice such a piece in the last 12 months? How often did you even see two or three of these events included in the same article? The answer — if you’re not talking about someplace online and out of the mainstream like ClimateProgress.org — will certainly be seldom indeed.

And yet, in terms of our future on this planet, what could be more important than the picture you form from the news about the essential state of our world? In this way, what might be called — lacking a better term — isolation journalism is unfortunately our norm.  That, not underreporting, was the main media problem of 2012 and will be so again in 2013 and beyond.


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, his history of the Cold War, runs The Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.  Watch his recent interview with Bill Moyers on supersized politics, drones and other subjects.

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  • Anonymous

    Not only hasn’t the “whole ball of melting wax” not been reported, there has been no meaningful discussion as evidenced by the lack of a single climate change question in the presidential debates. The media is irresponsibly silent so as not to alienate advertisers. Fossil fuel (and dependent) industries wield powerful economic pressure on the media. And the real elephant in the room of Co2 emissions — the vast amounts of energy used to produce and sustain an increasing (and increasingly unsustainable) appetite for goods and services — if discussed would result in no advertisers.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/V4ZEQDYQYGGZQZAXR4RGE5JTYU B. Spoon

    The most unreported story last year was any truth, evidence and facts surrounding healthcare reform. We’re being lied to and purposefully misinformed like never before.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nico.mancini Nico Mancini

    People have so many choices on where to get their “news” that they often chose to obtain it from a friendly source – that is, a source of news that talls the viewer/listener what they want to see/hear and very little else. Is there really any mainstream media left?

  • RTaylor

    As a former journalist in small market media (radio and print), I covered a lot of local and state government issues as well as local reaction to national events. My first thought as I sat down (at a typewriter, no less!) write about long-running stories and/or issues was always to ask: what’s NEW here? and then try to put it in context. You are so, so correct in pointing out this “windowless” reporting. It does not serve the public well in any way. It gives our leaders – particulary the squirrely ones – carte blanche to create an entirely new story, ignoring the history of a particular issue. We usually only get this kind of perspective nowadays from long-running columnists or “beat” reporters who maintain a long-standing relationship with their particular subjects.

  • Anonymous

    Infotainment is the whole point of “news” today. It’s just to serve as a distraction without providing any real information. Just look at what passes for News shows on the major networks these days.
    And sure, you can rat around on the net and find better information. But, with the economy what it is and the difficulty of just trying to get by, many just don’t have the time or resources to find it out for themselves.
    It’s all very deliberate…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pam-Ward/1580583217 Pam Ward

    Good article. Back when journalists got trained properly, they would begin an assignment with a in-depth research on the history of the issue/problem/person. They would not even try to report a current event without a firm grasp of it’s history. Are journalists no longer trained properly? Do they no longer care about the quality of their work? Have the cultural norms among journlists been destroyed by Fox News and it’s army of bought-and-paid for corrupt and tainted “experts”? Why do honest journalists (if there are any left) treat the corrupt with kid-gloves–out of fear, or cowardice?

  • http://www.facebook.com/padmagrrl Diana Hagerty

    One of the few real journalists left out there. Thank you. As sad as this news is, at least it’s real. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  • jujudahl

    How come no one, no industry, no corporation is held accountable which was once held high and there were laws governing our airways licenses, conduct, truth in advertising, truth in lending.
    We are told by these same people that they are over regulated and uncertainly curtails growth while they are fracking the country side here in Amerika. Destroying aqua firs/water supplies and forests and wildlife and eco systems in balance.
    We all know the answer, these media outlets are the 2% and the their anchors are wannabe 5%.

  • triff

    Educating the masses, so that they can tell a red herring from a tin of Shinola would be a start.

  • http://profiles.google.com/anitamurie Anita Ferguson

    What about the completely discredited theory or scam known as Supplyside or Trickledown economics? How many times does this have to fail before the media calls at conservatives who continue to push it?

  • Anonymous

    Tom’s would be the most accurate answer, but as I sit here with radiation burns on my neck and face at nearly 11:00 am, from the radiation weapons (those so-called “less-than-lethal” weapons the Pentagon gave all our police forces back when Clinton was president), too exhausted to think straight and continue my writing projects (because radiation applied consistently to the brain creates a type of mild anoxia and destroys executive function), and I see no mention of how, where, against whom, and with what that covert war Geo. Bush declared against EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE who has anything condemning of the U.S. to say, which has never been declared at an end though the conventional war in Iraq has been, twice, I realize we targets off of whose backs the parasitic paramilitaries of our military dictatorship will never, ever receive either the acknowledgement we exist, or any help from our fellow citizens to end what is plainly the terrorism and torture we experience. You can say anything in America you want – as long as you’re willing to pay for it. This is plain fascism.
    www (dot) dontfearyourfreedom (dot) blogspot (dot) com.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003248296865 Vivek Jain

    The “crisis in reporting” is the inevitable consequence of the impact of capitalism and corporatism on journalism. This is described well by Robert McChesney (see “Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy”) and John Nichols (see “Death and Life of American Journalism”). Michael Parenti too has written about why the mass media is unable to bring us context, why it won’t connect the dots, or provide a platform for the oppressed (see http://www.michaelparenti.org/MonopolyMedia.html and http://kropfpolisci.com/media.parenti.eiteclass.pdf ) Take a look at this talk by Parenti on ideology and orthodoxy in the mass media : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTCPoodUsgU

    I’m curious why Tom Engelhardt, whose TomDispatch.com website routinely provides excellent coverage of empire, didn’t point out Bumiller’s omission of “imperialism” in her NYTimes piece on Afghanistan.

    The
    American war on the people of Afghanistan is illegal. Did Bumiller
    mention that in her article? Who has profited and who has paid from this illegal aggression against the people of Afghanistan?

    Michael Parenti in “The Face of Imperialism” wrote of this kind of propaganda:
    “What
    is missing from these kinds of analyses and even more so from the
    public discourse in general is the political-economic content of empire.
    In other words, while we hear a lot about empire and militarism, we
    hear very little about imperialism. This is strange, for imperialism is
    what empires do. Imperialism is the very activity of empire. (Another
    name for empire is imperium.) By imperialism I do not mean just power
    and dominion; I mean the process of transnational investment and capital
    accumulation…. For latter day [critics of American empire]… the word
    imperialism is used in the same empty way as is the word empire; to
    denote dominion and control with little attention given to the powerful
    economic interests that operate as a motor force behind US policy. [Thus
    we see the production of]… shallow critiques of empire, characterizing
    US interventionist policies as “reckless,” “misguided,” “inept,”
    “bumbling,” “insensitive,” “overreaching,” “self-deceptive,” “deluded,”
    “driven by false assumptions,” and “presuming a mandate from God,” while
    ladened with “tragic mistakes” and “imperial hubris.” They see all this
    as a mindless proclivity embedded in the American psyche or culture. We
    are left to conclude that US leaders are chronically deluded, stupid,
    and incapable of learning from past experience; they lack the splendid
    intelligence of their liberal critics. For the critics, empire has
    little to do with economic class interests and is mostly a product of an
    aggrandizing national temperament incited by myopic overweening
    leaders… [Imperialism is] the process whereby the dominant investor
    interests in one country bring to bear military and financial power upon
    another country in order to expropriate the land, labor, capital,
    natural resources, commerce and markets of that other country. In short,
    empires do not just pursue power for power’s sake. There are real
    material interests at stake, fortunes to be made many times over…. The
    intervention is intended to enrich the investors and keep the world safe
    for them.”

    And finally, since Tom spoke of connecting dots, and brought up ecocide, what about the relationship between climate change and capitalism?
    See John Bellamy Foster’s writing on this, for example:
    http://monthlyreview.org/author/johnbellamyfoster
    http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2011/foster291011.html
    http://monthlyreview.org/press/books/pb0564/

  • Anonymous

    We effectively have a “zombie” media because of billionaire ownership and the non-disclosure clauses in contracts that prevent anchors or reporters from telling the story behind the story.

    I write at OpedNews where we cover the under-reported stories year round, including guys like Tom Engelhart but also inviting citizen journos to contribute. This past year I reported on the failures of Eric Holder and the DOJ to enforce laws, from immunity deals with banks to overseas bribery scandals.

    I reported on revelations about hydrofracking that show the practice is inarguably dooming our children. I reported on documented, quantified exploitation of public airwaves by radio stations who blatantly shilled for Scott Walker in Wisconsin. I reported on a story barely touched by the media, in which a female black reporter filed a criminal complaint accusing James O’Keefe of drugging her in a sex plot.

    But the most serious stories avoided by the media this year are the raping of our civil liberties and “Son of Citizens United”. You may have heard about the NDAA in the indie media, but there hasn’t been much said about the NSA whistleblowers describing Stellar Wind, an operation to collect all your communications. Even less has been published about the precise way the Supreme Court crushed Montana’s Supreme Court ruling to police campaign spending in the state. This in turn affects all 50 states, yet we heard almost nothing about it. Read more here:

    http://www.opednews.com/articles/NY-Attorney-General-Fights-by-Gustav-Wynn-120805-337.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/jami.lee.1023 Jami Lee

    I don’t think the honest journalists are treating the corrupt with kid gloves. I think their bosses and owners are. The upper eschelon in these organizations are so very fearful of losing advertisers that they simply don’t allow the honest journalistic work to be published or broadcast. I’d love to see a system whereby the news division of any journalistic endeavor is in no way swayed by the almighty dollar!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jami.lee.1023 Jami Lee

    Very well said. I agree wholeheartedly. As a journalism student back in the late 70s, it was drummed into us that the story is not a story unless you report the WHOLE story, giving context and background.

  • Anonymous

    We’ll keep beating around the bush until people can actually come out and say that Capitalism is just wrong on so many levels. I’m always hearing “progressives” preface their talks with, “I believe in Capitalism.” Okay, great. Maybe in some idealistic world Capitalism works, but I sure don’t see it working very well here and now. In our dreams maybe. I try to envision what might work in its stead, and the only thing I can come up with is some form of socialism (lower case S)… but we all know how well that idea will fly. You’d think it was evil incarnate the way it gets railed against. The Machine will do everything in its power to protect the status quo. Fiscal cliff? What a joke. We’re being herded towards the buffalo jump.

  • atomic

    The only difference between GM and CNN is that GM sells cars, CNN, news. Both are beholden to corporate politics, stockholders’ targets and financial gains.

  • Jmbrock

    I have missed the “magazine” type reporting for some time. That is, the combination of big picture and in-depth reporting that ties together the dots. Or, perhaps, I have been seduced by the immediacy put forward by current events that are read about–I avoid the words “reported on” because so little reporting is done in this genre–in main stream media.

    You challenge me to select and take the time to read the reporting that I miss. I know that it is out there.

  • Pauline

    Most definitely, the teaching of context starts in school with good lessons on the history of the last 100 years, a subject often left untouched because educators stick to the old stuff (civil war, etc.) Kids need lessons in world politics, economics and budgeting, and media analysis so they can thresh the wheat from the chaff.

  • http://www.facebook.com/arsailman Al Rogat

    So true, and disheartening…

  • May

    And how about HAARP?

  • http://www.facebook.com/AuldAlbert Albert Rogers

    The most under-reported important facts of the last thirty years must include the existence and cancellation of the Integral Fast Reactor project. I learned about it from the Argonne Labs. website after I retired from the Federal Energy Regulating Commission.
    In 1986, April, just before “Chernobyl”, a project of the Argonne National Labs had shown its EBR 2 reactor to be, as designed, passively immune to exactly what destroyed the Ukraine reactor. It was, moreover, designed to require no plutonium “waste” disposal — because that’s what it consumes! Furthermore, its actual waste is less than a ton, per gigawatt-year of energy prodction. Compare to millions of tons of coal, emitting thousands of tons of highly poisonous sulfur and nitrogen oxides, as well as three times as much CO2 as the carbon consumed.

    Under-reported? How’s this: When I went back to the Argonne site, the IFR was gone!
    I found similar info and downloaded it from Berkeley U’s website, and sure enough, it’s no longer where I found it. There is an archive elsewhere.

    But I have now a large study of “alternatives” at my own
    http://skepticva.org/EnergyIndependence.html
    and
    http://skepticva.org/IFR.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/AuldAlbert Albert Rogers

    One of the few places that commenting is still not horrifically dependent upon the plutocracy is the Internet, which the corporate interests would muzzle with their proposals alleged to protect Intellectual Property — as if entities devoid of intelligence were entitled to own intellectual property.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AuldAlbert Albert Rogers

    I heartily agree. The idea that “the private sector” always does better than government agencies has been disproved by actual experiment in the last twenty years. I’m sad that Obama seems not to have paid enough attention to the magisterial “General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money” of Keynes, wherein he points out that, if you want to stimulate employment, the people who will make best use of the stimulus money are those who will spend it, not those who have a choice of whether to invest it now or later.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AuldAlbert Albert Rogers

    “Fossil fuel (and dependent) industries wield powerful economic pressure on the media”
    I’ve seen Chevron ads on PBS trumpeting their support of wind turbines and even solar. I take this as confirmation of my own reckoning that the only threat to the fossil fuel industry is 4th generation clean nuclear power, which actually existed in prototype in 1986.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t be fooled by the “green” ads, it’s the perception they’re selling. Fossil fuel company’s value is in what they own underground. Much more than enough, when burned, to push the planet’s warming well beyond the 2 degree tipping point. Scientists project that at our current rate of Co2 emissions, the tipping point will occur in about 20 years. 2 degrees will be unpleasant (we’ve had a taste already), beyond that, as one scientist quipped, “we might as well change the name of the planet since it will be unrecognizable.”

  • Margot

    Sometimes there are not two sides–there are just the facts. This concept seems to have been lost in modern reporting within the mainstream media.

  • http://profiles.google.com/anitamurie Anita Ferguson

    Exactly.