Elite papers marginalize public opposition.
The Obama administration, having increased the number of troops in Afghanistan by 21,000 in March, is engaged in a contentious internal discussion about whether to send an additional 40,000 more. There is growing anger over Afghan civilian deaths, and July and August were the deadliest months for U.S. soldiers since the U.S. invaded in 2001 (AP, 8/28/09).
Meanwhile, polls throughout 2009 show a U.S. public divided on whether the war is even worth fighting, let alone in need of escalation. In three surveys since July, the AP/GfK poll has reported that at least 53 percent of respondents say they oppose the Afghanistan War (PollingReport.com). In September, 51 percent told the Washington Post/ABC News poll (9/10–12/09) that the war was not “worth fighting”; only 46 percent said it was.
So where’s the wide-ranging Afghanistan War debate in the media?
The need for broad public debate over Afghanistan was echoed in September by Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Adm. Mike Mullen. Citing popular opposition to the war, Mullen called for a broad debate to take a “hard look” at the policy. “I’ve seen the public opinion polls saying that a majority of Americans don’t support the effort at all,” Mullen told an American Legion convention in Louisville, Ky (Washington Post, 8/26/09). “I say, good. Let’s have that debate, let’s have that discussion.”
But according to a new FAIR study of the op-ed pages of the two leading U.S. newspapers, rather than airing a full range of voices on the war, prominent media have downplayed proponents of withdrawal in favor of a debate that reflects the narrow range of elite, inside-Washington opinion.
FAIR’s study looked at all opinion columns in the New York Times and the Washington Post during the first 10 months of 2009 that addressed what the U.S. should do in the Afghanistan War. Columns were counted as antiwar if they called for withdrawal or clearly called into question the need or rationale for the war. Columns that supported continuing the war were counted as pro-war; these were divided into those that endorsed the idea of escalating the war and those that advocated some sort of alternative strategy, including reducing the number of troops.
Both newspapers marginalized antiwar opinion to different degrees. Of the New York Times’ 43 columns on the Afghanistan War, 36 supported the war and only seven opposed it—five times as many columns to war supporters as to opponents. Of the paper’s pro-war columns, 14 favored some form of escalation, while 22 argued for pursuing the war differently.
In the Washington Post, pro-war columns outnumbered antiwar columns by more than 10 to 1: Of 67 Post columns on U.S. military policy in Afghanistan, 61 supported a continued war, while just six expressed antiwar views. Of the pro-war columns, 31 were for escalation and 30 for an alternative strategy.
At times the Post’s editors seemed unaware that an antiwar position even existed. For instance, in an op-ed roundtable (9/27/09) appearing in its recurring “Topic A” feature, the section’s editors, in their words, “asked foreign policy experts whether President Obama should maintain a focus on protecting the population and rebuilding the country, or on striking terrorists.”
Excluding withdrawal from the discussion was a theme echoed by Post columnist Fareed Zakaria, who began a column (9/14/09): “It is time to get real about Afghanistan. Withdrawal is not a serious option.”
Some columnists changed positions during the study period, which spanned two separate escalation discussions. Zakaria, for instance, supported the first escalation but opposed the one debated in the fall of 2009. The Post’s David Ignatius mostly opposed escalation, calling instead for continuing the war while paying more attention to humanitarian concerns, but he wrote one column that supported sending additional troops (10/30/09).
Pro-war columns opposing escalation included a variety of views. The Post’s Ignatius argued (10/4/09) that the U.S. should “[keep] our troop levels firm and reliable, until the Afghans acquire the tools and political consensus to secure their country”; Ignatius’ Post colleague George Will (9/1/09) wanted to replace ground troops in Afghanistan with more long-distance aerial attacks—which are notoriously hazardous to civilian populations:
So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.
Calls for a scale-back or drawdown but not an end to the war were counted as pro-war, including columns that expressed some antiwar sentiments but suggested that the war should continue at some level—such as Times columnist Bob Herbert’s January 6 op-ed, which criticized the war but ultimately seemed to call merely for scaling down the troop commitment, arguing that “our interest in Afghanistan is to prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists bent on attacking us,” a mission that he said “does not require the scale of military operations that the incoming administration is contemplating” or “a wholesale occupation.”
Herbert’s five subsequent columns on Afghanistan policy, on the other hand, made him by far the loudest antiwar voice in the study period, and the author of the majority of the Times’ seven antiwar columns. His October 26 column was a clear example, concluding: “Let’s explore creative alternatives to endless warfare and start bringing the weary troops home.”
Only one of the Times’ antiwar columns was written by a guest columnist (Leslie Gelb, 3/13/09); by contrast, only one of the Post’s antiwar columns was written by a regular columnist (Eugene Robinson, 10/27/09). And three of the Post’s six antiwar columns were short “Topic A” responses rather than full-length columns.
The voices the papers featured on the Afghanistan debate were overwhelmingly male, with only 12 of 110 columns written or co-written by women. Though women oppose escalation more strongly than men—according to a Clarus poll (10/1–4/09), 45 percent of men but only 33 percent of women favored additional troops—women’s columns were overall more pro-escalation than the male-penned op-eds. All nine columns appearing in the Post written or co-written by women were pro-war, with seven calling for an escalation; all three Times columns bearing female bylines supported the war, with two arguing for escalation. No antiwar column by a woman appeared in either paper.
Only two columns in the study period were written or co-written by Afghan nationals (New York Times, 4/20/09; Washington Post, 10/18/09); both generally supported the war, though neither called for escalation. Neither paper published a single column written by an antiwar activist or peace movement leader.
As hawkish advocates are ramping up their pro-war campaigns—including on the country’s leading op-ed pages—opposition to the war is not diminishing. In fact, according to the latest poll from AP/GfK, the opposite is happening: Its November 5–9 survey found 57 percent opposed to the war and just 39 percent in support.
So the American public’s majority view is a decidedly minority view on the op-ed pages on the country’s most prestigious newspapers. That’s good and bad news for democracy: It’s good news that the public is not entirely captive to the narrow, elite range of debate prescribed by newspapers.
It’s bad news because, however diminished their roles as opinion leaders may be, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue to wield an unmatched influence in the nation’s capital and in newsrooms across the country. One can only imagine what public opinion would be, and what policy might result, if these papers truly offered a wide-ranging debate on the Afghanistan War.
Research assistance by Valerie Doescher and Taylor Moore.