A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
“Amid the Afghanistan debacle, the president faces a new press environment,” James Freeman wrote for the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week.
That is certainly true. Many on the right, like Freeman, think it’s long overdue. Many on the left think it’s unwarranted both-sides posturing. But it’s clear that the press coverage and criticism President Biden is different this week, in the wake of the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Afghanistan.
One of CNN.com’s main headlines on Thursday said “Biden’s presidency is under scrutiny as never before over Afghan chaos.” The cover of the normally staid Economist magazine called it “BIDEN’S DEBACLE” in big white letters. Fox Business host Stuart Varney claimed to be surprised by the tough takes: “His performance has been so bad, that he’s losing the media for heaven’s sake!”
White House aides and Biden allies say the coverage is overheated and out of step with the American public’s views of the matter. Biden critics say the coverage is appropriately channeling moral outrage.
Debates about the media have been happening all week long on Twitter. Larry Sabato, founder of UVA’s Center for Politics, commented that “the media will never admit it, but they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to harshly go after Biden to prove anew how ‘balanced’ they are. ‘See, it’s not just Trump!’”
“That’s one interpretation,” Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center responded. “Here’s another one: Joe Biden committed a catastrophic mistake, the media is pointing out the cascading effects of that mistake, and liberals who are reflexive defenders of Biden are getting angry at the media for doing so.”
Many in the Washington press corps would say they’re just producing the best journalism they can – with an eye toward understanding what went wrong during the Afghanistan drawdown and another eye toward holding people in power accountable. Here’s an example from CNN on Wednesday: “Biden said he thought chaos in Afghanistan was inevitable after US troops left, even though he spent months promising there would be order.”
If the critical coverage feels personal at times, well, many of the people covering the story are also concerned about former colleagues and interpreters and fixers who are at risk of being left behind. News institutions and individuals are scrambling to try to evacuate everyone they can. Bottom line: Biden’s news playing field has definitely changed in the past few days.
No answers for the press corps
Biden continues to avoid Q&A sessions with the White House press. His interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was his only forum for addressing Afghanistan questions on Wednesday. In the sit-down, he channeled the White House’s broader frustration with the media’s focus on conditions at the airport in Kabul.
CNN’s Nikki Carvajal and Maegan Vazquez wrote: “When Biden was asked about pictures showing people packed into a C-17 and video of Afghans clinging to the sides of planes attempting to take off from Kabul’s airport, he sharply cut off the question.” He said “That was four days ago, five days ago!” when the key images were from just two days ago.
>> “By my count,” presidential count-keeper Mark Knoller said, “President Biden today sat for his 9th news interview.” As for how that stacks up with predecessors at this same point in a presidency, Knoller said Trump had given 50 interviews at this point, and Barack Obama had given 113.
>> Frustration with the lack of Q&A opportunities for the press corps is going to boil over sooner rather than later, I suspect, even as Biden seeks to go on vacation.
Are Americans paying attention?
The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. Clearly there is some heightened level of audience interest in the Afghanistan mess. But consider this too: On the Journal website, the most-read story right now is about Covid-19 boosters, not Afghanistan. The same is true on the Washington Post website: The most-read story is titled “Mom of 4 who died of covid days after her husband makes one final wish: ‘Make sure my kids get vaccinated.’”
Cable news ratings also show heightened but not off-the-charts interest. I thought this observation by The Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona was interesting: “The Afghan crisis has been a boon for Fox News this week – it’s seeing its best ratings of the Biden era as conservative viewers are fully energized and engaged. Last night, Fox primetime drew 3.889 million total viewers, with Hannity’s Trump interview pulling in 4.82 million.”
While reading all the hot takes, I try to remember that recency bias is a very real factor. The Afghan drawdown is front and center right now, but no one knows how this chapter will end, or what the next chapter will be about. Blogger Kevin Drum urged caution earlier this week: “Can we wait even a few days before pretending we know how Afghanistan will turn out?” And CNN’s polling and election analytics editor Ariel Edwards-Levy made this point: “We almost certainly don’t fully know what issues/dynamics are going to be at the forefront of voters’ minds in 2022, let alone 2024.”
A new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, released Thursday, showed that 62 percent of American adults believe the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.
The AP said that “47% approve of Biden’s management of international affairs, while 52% approve of Biden on national security.”
“Television is full of people who say withdrawing from Afghanistan was a mistake,” Popular Information newsletter scribe Judd Legum tweeted Thursday. But two-thirds of Americans “believe the war was not worth fighting.”