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Study: In Afghan Debate, Few Antiwar Op-Eds in Nation’s Two Leading Newspapers

StoryDecember 01, 2009
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President Obama has issued orders for a major escalation of the US occupation of Afghanistan by sending 34,000 additional troops. Has the media helped beat the drum for war? A new study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting reveals pro-war voices outnumbered antiwar ones by a huge margin in the op-ed pages of the nation’s two leading newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has issued orders for a major escalation of the US occupation of Afghanistan. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed Obama has told military leaders to implement his war plan, which involves the deployment of an estimated 34,000 additional US troops. Obama is also believed to be seeking commitments of an additional 5,000 to 10,000 troops from NATO allies. He’s expected to meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers before publicly unveiling his plan in a national address tonight from the US Military Academy at West Point.

This is Obama’s second escalation of the Afghan war, following his initial deployment of at least 22,000 additional troops earlier this year. It will bring the US occupation force to more than 100,000 troops. More than half of them will have been sent to war by President Obama.

Obama’s plan to escalate the Afghan war comes amidst dwindling public support for the Afghan occupation. Recent polls show a majority of Americans believe the Afghan war is not worth fighting, with the country near evenly split on whether to send more troops.

As Obama prepares to unveil his plan, the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has put out a study analyzing how the issue of war escalation has been discussed in the opinion papers of the two leading newspapers in the country, the New York Times and the Washington Post. They have featured decidedly pro-war views in the months leading up to Obama’s decision on deploying more troops. In the New York Times, pro-war voices outnumbered antiwar ones by a ratio of five-to-one, while in the Washington Post the ratio was ten-to-one.

We’re joined now in our New York studio by Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, the magazine of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that published the report.

Jim, lay out your findings.

JIM NAURECKAS: Well, we were looking at the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post for the first ten months of 2009, and during that time they had 110 op-eds discussing military policy in Afghanistan. So it’s not like this is an issue that isn’t being talked about. But what was missing from the discussion was the idea of getting out of Afghanistan. This was very much a marginal position on these pages. As you say, the New York Times had five-to-one pro-war to antiwar voices; the Washington Post had ten-to-one. It was really — Fareed Zakaria, who’s a columnist for the Washington Post, said that withdrawal is not a serious option, and that seemed to be the attitude overall in the discussion, was that people who did not want to keep fighting the war in some manner were not really advancing a serious idea. That was kind of off the table.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times, the majority of those antiwar columns — right? — from one person, from Bob Herbert?

JIM NAURECKAS: Right, yeah. Nearly all of them, actually, were from Bob Herbert. If it wasn’t for Herbert, the New York Times would have been almost univocally pro-war without any discussion of the idea of whether the war was worth fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jim, the range of debate in the Washington Post and the New York Times, when the op-ed page presents so-called opposing opinions?

JIM NAURECKAS: Well, they do have a debate over how to fight the war. That is present in the pages. Not everyone was in favor of sending more troops, as Obama was talking about doing. But the discussion was often framed as, should we send more ground troops or should we fight the war more using, you know, unmanned aerial attacks, you know, remote-control attacks? Is that a better way of carrying out this war? It was really not a discussion of the ends, but a discussion of the means.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Steve Zunes into this discussion. Professor Zunes has not only written about the Western Sahara, but has written extensively about Afghanistan. Your response to the announcement President Obama will be making later today at West Point, the increase of 34,000 troops?

STEPHEN ZUNES: It’s very disappointing. It’s ironic that we are escalating a war in the name of fighting totalitarianism, the oppression of women and terrorism, when we refuse to support a nonviolent democratic movement led by a woman in Western Sahara. This is only going to make things worse. There’s a large Afghan community out here in the Bay Area, particularly around Fremont, and these are people who have suffered enormously under the Taliban. They’ve lost family members. And the view is almost universal that this escalation is only going to make things worse, that it’s going to just create more extremists, more resistance, that what we call the Taliban is in fact a whole plethora of resistance groups that are primarily fighting what they see as a foreign occupation. With this escalation, the United States is going to have more troops in Afghanistan than the Soviets did at the height of their occupation in the 1980s. And we saw what the reaction was to the Soviet presence during that period.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Moore had a very interesting letter to President Obama, where he said, “I simply can’t believe you’re about to do what they say you’re going to do.” Moore warned that Obama would tarnish his legacy, turn away his supporters, and effectively crown himself the new war president by escalating the war in Afghanistan. He said, “With just one speech tomorrow night” — which actually is tonight — “you will turn a multitude of young people who are the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics.” Moore wrote, “Your potential decision to expand the war will do more to set your legacy in stone than any of the great things you’ve said and done in your first year.” Michael Moore went on to say, “For the sake of your presidency, hope and the future of our nation, stop. For God’s sake, stop.” Jim Naureckas, this is not a view that was on the op-ed pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post recently.

JIM NAURECKAS: Yeah, Fareed Zakaria would deem that someone who’s not offering a serious option, that that kind of broad look at why we would be fighting the war, what the consequences for this war will be, both in Afghanistan and the United States, really was really not on the table. It was very much a kind of instrumental approach.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to have to leave it there. Jim Naureckas, thanks for being with us, and Professor Steve Zunes, speaking to us from San Francisco.

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