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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

Better that the reporters just tell the story

By offering their views on Afghanistan, respected correspondents Richard Engel and Lara Logan risk obscuring their most powerful role.

October 14, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Eight years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama faces a decision about what to do in that troubled part of the world.

It's a crushingly urgent moment for the young president and also the national media, still chagrined about the failure to more rigorously study claims that Iraq had to be attacked because of its stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps two star network television correspondents had that history in mind when they marked last week's anniversary of the Afghan war with a watershed of their own -- shucking off their presumed impartiality to argue what they think should happen next in Afghanistan.

CBS' Lara Logan scoffed at "ludicrous" compromise measures, like the one reportedly proposed by Vice President Joe Biden, and urged rapid compliance with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for a major troop buildup. NBC's Richard Engel, in marked contrast, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that the future in Afghanistan looked bleak and that "it's probably time to start leaving the country."

Logan and Engel are a couple of gutsy and celebrated war correspondents, who have earned respect for the many months they've spent on the front lines in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But just because they've earned the right to an opinion doesn't mean they help themselves by expressing it.

By offering their views, no matter how well informed, they risk obscuring their most powerful role -- as impartial eyes and ears in places most of us will never see. The blogosphere and cable TV bombard us, 24 hours a day, with self-appointed judges. That confers even more power on the rare few who merely seek to bear witness.

The correspondents' leap into the spin zone comes, ironically, just as both their networks were being celebrated for coverage that studiously played the question of Afghanistan down the middle.

Engel won an Edward R. Murrow award Monday night from fellow broadcasters for his continuing coverage of Afghanistan, which culminated Sunday night in a documentary about an isolated, much embattled U.S. Army outpost.

CBS was coming off a week in which it devoted almost the entirety of three nightly news broadcasts to the vexing political and military issues America faces as it tries to confront Al Qaeda.

Engel's reports from the far reaches of the Korengal Valley showed the problems rather than trying to tell about them. Baby-faced soldiers chased an enemy, usually unseen, while relying on sit-downs with village elders, whose sympathies looked as immovable as their craggy faces.

Soldiers from Viper Company spoke hopefully about making a difference, even as a few wondered if they had been forgotten. And though they mostly guessed at how many of the enemy they had killed, "Tip of the Spear" had cameras close at hand when the lonely Army company lost one of its beloved sergeants, John Penich, to one of its own mortars.

That friendly-fire death -- and video of Penich's mother struggling to believe that the war was worthwhile -- suggested more about the potential futility of the mission than 100 commentaries ever could.

But such news programs don't go without promotion and so Engel, 36, cruised the talk show circuit -- a tour that ended up getting more attention than his substantial work in the field.

NBC's chief foreign correspondent -- who came to the Middle East after studying at Stanford, learned Arabic and essentially never left the Islamic world -- told Joe Scarborough, "I really don't see how this is going to end in anything but tears."

In an interview with PBS' Charlie Rose he sounded no more optimistic. "I don't personally think the nation building, winning hearts and minds is ever going to work," Engel said. "I really don't."

It's easy to see how well-regarded correspondents (Engel once went to the White House, at President George W. Bush's invitation, to talk about Iraq) get tempted to venture beyond their reporting, particularly with blogs and talk shows constantly urging them to go further.

Still, it's hard to completely swallow Engel's assertion to me this week that his statements amounted to no more than analysis. "I didn't try to offer policy advice," he said. "That wasn't my role."

NBC News President Steve Capus said he "fully supported" his star correspondent, but he also said he called Engel to "quiz" him about the provocative interviews. "I said he has so much to offer in terms of straight reporting and analysis," Capus said, "that I want him to stick to that."

In her appearance on CBS' "Washington Unplugged," Logan, 38, launched an even more full-throated argument on Afghanistan. She called plans for a more measured military effort targeting Al Qaeda (and reportedly supported by Biden) an "absolute disaster" and "just ludicrous."

Logan scoffed at the idea of a pullout. "And for the U.S. to give Al Qaeda the victory," she said, "I mean the philosophical victory, the physical victory, the tactical victory, on every single level would be catastrophic in the war on terror."

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