The mainstream media played a large role in Americans' lack of awareness when it came to the war in Afghanistan, historians and scholars told Axios on Tuesday.
Before the Taliban regained control of the country little more than two weeks ago amid President Joe Biden's catastrophic withdrawal of U.S. troops, there had been relatively little coverage on Afghanistan during the past 20 years.
"This is the least reported war since at least World War I," Benjamin Hopkins, a historian of modern South Asia specializing in the history of Afghanistan at George Washington University, wrote in an email to Axios.
"This is a generation-long war. It is tough to maintain attention for that long."
Hopkins cited two reasons for the media's lack of interest in Afghanistan until recent events.
"I think there are two grounds where the press bears responsibility," he wrote to Axios. "The first is that the financial model of the press requires, at least to a certain extent, the reporting of news that will sell.
"The second is that the Defense Department largely tamed the press at the beginning of the war on terror. It offered access, but on its terms. By and large, much [though again not all] of the media accepted this access, with all the limits it necessarily put on reporting."
The war in Afghanistan began in 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon.
Thomas Barfield, president of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University, told Axios the war was difficult to sell to Americans from the start.
"Domestic audiences had no interest," Barfield told Axios. "The history, culture, and politics are complicated and multilayered. Add on top of this a lack of familiarity not only with the details, but the general terms [i.e. – 'ethnicity', 'tribe'] and it is no wonder people struggle, and in many cases give up on understandings."
Barfield said politics played a role in the media turning away from Afghanistan coverage.
"U.S. officials proved they had a poor grasp of Afghanistan culturally or politically so the press has to stand in line in terms of blame for 'why we didn't know X,'" Barfield told Axios.
"Afghanistan has never been something politicians individually or as a class have wanted to invest political capital in."
The media also largely ignored The Washington Post's report in 2019 that U.S. officials who constantly claimed progress was being made in the war knew otherwise.
Now, as the press in Afghanistan that provided U.S. outlets with context is quickly being unraveled, covering the goings-on in the country is more difficult under the Taliban.
The World Association of News Publishers on Tuesday wrote an appeal asking international publishers to help secure "meaningful work for the hundreds, likely thousands, of displaced journalists and media workers forced into exile by the dramatic resurgence of the Taliban," Axios reported.
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