I’ve been reading through old coverage of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the US armed the religious extremists of the mujahideen against the Soviets. The parallels to the biased coverage of the war in Syria are striking, especially with regard to the romanticization of Islamist rebels. Many of the journalistic shortcomings documented in this New York Times article from 1990 are found in today’s biased reporting on Syria:
From 1980 until late 1986, few American journalists were allowed to visit Kabul or any other Government-held area, which meant that coverage of the war was left primarily to reporters working from the rebel side. Those venturing into the war zones carried back powerful accounts of the rebels’ struggle, and of the destructiveness of the forces they faced. But it was inevitable that over the years, what Americans learned of the conflict came increasingly to reflect the rebel viewpoint; whatever balance access to the other side would have offered was lost.
In addition, much of the Afghan reporting available to Americans came from resident freelancers, many of them relatively inexperienced. The result was that strong bonds often developed between those covering the conflict and the rebels. Many of the reporters became identified with a particular rebel group, usually the one that arranged their journeys ”inside.” Too often, abuses by these groups went unreported, or at least underplayed.
In Peshawar’s American Club, reporters skeptical of an approach that celebrated the rebels’ virtues encountered ostracism. One visitor, Mary Williams Walsh of The Wall Street Journal, had her entry to the club ”suspended” after reporting sardonically on the rebel boosterism she found. Later, after The New York Post ran a series of stories alleging that the CBS Evening News had used faked film footage in some of its reporting on rebel attacks, Ms. Walsh, who had done much of the initial reporting on that story, became a focus for renewed hostility. When in the fall of 1989 word of her departure from the Journal reached the American Club, some of the freelancers involved called for drinks all round.
Such attitudes did not encourage evenhanded reporting. Little attention was given, for example, to the involvement of rebel commanders in the opium traffic, though it had been known in Peshawar for years. Nor, until his murderous attacks on other rebel groups attracted Washington’s condemnation in 1989, did the Peshawar-based reporters – or American diplomats – pay much attention to the sinister nature of Mr. Hekmatyar, the dominant figure among the rebel leaders and the recipient, for years, of the lion’s share of American money and weapons. But stories had long circulated in Kabul and Peshawar of how, as a Kabul student leader during the early 1970’s, he had dispatched followers to throw vials of acid into the faces of women students who refused to wear veils.
Such selective reporting extended to the war itself. When in November 1988 the rebels executed more than 70 Government officers and men after they had surrendered at Torkham, the story was missed by many Peshawar-based American reporters. And there was little coverage in the United States, either, of massacres that occured in areas taken by the rebels, not even when Western human-rights groups offered well-documented accounts, as they did after the rebels engaged in a frenzy of rape and pillage in Kunduz in late 1988.