Margaret Sullivan on Afghan coverage: “What we largely got was the all-too-familiar genre of winners and losers.”

From a Margaret Sullivan media column in the Washington Post headlined “The Afghan debacle lasted two decades. The media spent two hours deciding whom to blame”:

If ever a big, breaking story demanded that the news media provide historical context and carefully avoid partisan blame, it’s the story of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

Instead, what we largely got over the past few days was the all-too-familiar genre of “winners and losers” coverage. It’s coverage that tends to elevate and amplify punditry over news, and to assign long-lasting political ramifications to a still-developing situation.

And when news consumers have been tuned out of a story—as they are, unfortunately, with most international coverage—this quick-take journalism can be damaging and misleading.

Evidence of this nuance-deprived, overstated coverage was obvious throughout big and small news organizations over the weekend and across the political spectrum.

Here’s the predictable headline on Miranda Devine’s column in the Murdoch-owned New York Post: “Joe Biden’s defeat in Afghanistan will echo for eternity.”…

In the much more left-leaning Atlantic, here’s the headline on George Packer’s analysis: “Biden’s Betrayal of Afghans Will Live in Infamy.”

Axios, the digital, short-bite news site, gleefully joined the party: “Rarely has an American president’s predictions been so wrong, so fast, so convincingly as Biden on Afghanistan.”

And when I picked up the print edition of what is my local daily newspaper, the Buffalo News, the front-page headline was a slightly more restrained echo: “Afghanistan collapse could leave indelible stain on Biden legacy.”

The truth is quite a bit more complicated than all of that, and once you get past the headlines, some of the coverage—including Packer’s—reflects that. But for an American public that largely ignores serious international news short of a bona fide crisis, this will be the enduring takeaway….

Has the Biden administration badly handled the ending? Yes, and that deserves to be pointed out unsparingly, as David Sanger did in the New York Times: “Even many of Biden’s allies who believe he made the right decision to finally exit a war that the United States could not win and that was no longer in its national interest concede he made a series of major mistakes in executing the withdrawal.”…

As always, the media moves too quickly to the blame game, allowing the most extreme punditry to carry the day. When history is in the making, as it surely is here, that’s far from the best approach.

Maybe the pullout from Afghanistan really will go down as Biden’s Waterloo. But maybe deciding that should take more than a few hours.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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