News Networks' 'Surge' in Afghanistan

Dangerous, costly story a must for networks 10/05/2009 01:00:00 PM Eastern

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Oct. 7 marks the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, and with the White House facing critical choices on troop augmentation, news organizations have begun their own surge in coverage.

For cash-strapped networks emerging from intense multi-year coverage of the Iraq war, Afghanistan is a minefield of risk, not the least because news personnel have been repeatedly kidnapped by the Taliban and their civilian cohorts.

“Baghdad was a civil war and it was very easy to get caught in the middle of that,” says NBC News' Richard Engel during a phone call from Kabul. “Here, it's an insurrection. You can't just get into a car and drive up to Kunar province. You probably wouldn't come back. It would be a one-way trip.”

Indeed, reporters are increasingly getting caught in the crossfire. An Associated Press reporter lost a foot in an IED attack in August, the same month that CBS News Radio correspondent Cami McCormick was seriously injured during an attack in Logar province that killed an American soldier.

“You're constantly worried,” says Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports. “Getting that phone call late at night or early in the morning is devastating.”

But with violence escalating and the debate over troop deployments figuring to be another litmus test for the Obama presidency, ramped-up coverage is compulsory. Networks still must send their own correspondents—and occasionally their star anchor—to maintain credibility.

“We're covering [Afghanistan] much more aggressively than we have in the last few years,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's World News. “Part of that was [because we were] really focused on Iraq. As the president has focused a lot more attention back on Afghanistan, our attention has followed.”

For news executives, the high cost of dispatching correspondents and crews—and hiring the necessary security to protect them—to cover a war that no longer has the support or attention of the American public is a juggling act in an environment of shrinking budgets and recession-depleted ad revenue. Western news organizations are increasingly forming partnerships to cover foreign wars, such as CBS News' recently announced newsgathering deal with Website GlobalPost. “You have to spend your money more efficiently,” McManus says.

When Katie Couric accompanied Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on a trip through the region last May, she was rewarded with below-average tune-in for CBS's Evening News (5.6 million viewers for the week compared to a season average of 6.1 million).

“There's a huge disconnect with the American people paying attention in Afghanistan,” says CNN's Anderson Cooper, who recently spent a week embedded with the military at Jaker, a remote forward operating base in Helmand province. “These are not stories people are watching. Frankly, when I was there, 60 Minutes was all over the place. CNN has a full-time correspondent there. There are people telling the stories. But I know for a fact that not a lot of Americans, no matter what they say, are interested or are willing to spend a lot of time watching. I think polls reflect that, ratings reflect that.”

Still, TV news divisions are going there. CBS News will commit half of each Evening News broadcast from Oct. 5-7 to Afghanistan with reporting from correspondents Lara Logan, David Martin and Terry McCarthy. In addition, Scott Pelley recently spent three weeks with a Marine company in Helmand for an upcoming report on 60 Minutes.

“This isn't something we're doing for ratings,” McManus says. “Stories on wars normally don't get good ratings.”

NBC News will update Engel's Tip of the Spear series about Viper Company, previously aired on Nightly News, into an hour-long documentary set to bow Oct. 11 on MSNBC. At ABC, Nick Schifrin is currently in Kandahar, and the network plans to send a second correspondent to Afghanistan this week.  Fox News currently has a correspondent embedded with the U.S. Air Force in Bagram. PBS's Frontline wades in with an analysis of the counterinsurgency strategy on Oct. 13 with Obama's War.

Despite the commitment to cover a war the audience would rather forget, news organizations have been criticized for giving the conflict in Afghanistan short shrift. An NPR report by David Folkenflik questioned what he characterized as a dearth of Afghanistan coverage from the start, calling it the “forgotten” war. The deaths of seven U.S. soldiers there in early July—in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding the death of Michael Jackson—was given seconds of airtime compared to the slavish coverage of Jackson's death and funeral.

“All these stories about how we're not taking the war there seriously and we're not covering it seriously does not speak to what NBC News is doing there,” counters Bob Epstein, executive producer of NightlyNews. “We have devoted an enormous amount of resources there in terms of what you see on the air and what we've done in building an organization there. It's a dangerous story. It's an extremely important story. And we're covering it.”

In fact, Afghanistan was the third-biggest story for the week ending Sept. 27, behind the United Nations session in New York and the health-care debate, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s weekly news-coverage index. And Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was the third-leading newsmaker of the week behind Obama and alleged bomb-maker Najibullah Zazi, and ahead of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Muammar Gaddafi.

This year has been marked by a succession of grim milestones in Afghanistan: 40 U.S. soldiers were killed there in September, down slightly from a high of 51 in August. So far this year, 222 soldiers have died, the most since the war began and more than the combined total for 2001-04. The administration sent 21,000 additional troops there last summer, and now Gen. McChrystal is seeking at least 40,000 more.

For military personnel fighting and dying in Afghanistan, the media is a welcome and critical partner. “Every time I’ve gone to Afghanistan and been embedded with troops, they have the same message, which is, folks back home have no idea what’s going on here,” says CNN’s Cooper.

In 2006, Cooper spent several days with the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. “They all told me the same story,” he says. “They would be back home for two weeks of R&R, and they were on a plane or in a bar and somebody would ask them, ‘Where are you serving?’ And when they said Afghanistan, the response was always, ‘Well, at least you’re not in Iraq,’ as if Afghanistan was incredibly easy. Every time I’ve been over there, the [soldiers] I have been with could not have been happier to have someone [telling] their stories.”

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