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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 — 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 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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