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Jun. 16 2010 - 11:24 am | 335 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Where the ‘New York Times’ went wrong on the Afghanistan minerals story

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Every so often, the establishment press unintentionally reveals how it works. It’s as if you suddenly put Big Media through an fMRI that showed not only its internal structures and their connections to the government, business et al, but how this system actually works, dynamically – and also pinpoint where something has gone wrong.

I’m referring to James Risen’s New York Times story on Afghanistan’s apparently vast mineral resources. I wanted to wait a little while before writing on it, because such a story has a kind of lifecycle, and I wanted to see how this one played out.

At first it appeared to be a geopolitical game-changer, perhaps heralding the arrival of a the next big 21st conflict, like the “Great Game” in 19th century Central Asia between the Russian and British Empires. And maybe it is.

Then, instantly, the story came under fire for overhyping known facts and what looked like too-convenient timing. The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan – set to end next year – is faltering, Hamid Karzai is acting odder than usual, Congress is growing restive. Suddenly, the NYT runs a story quoting David Petraeus saying: Afghanistan has enormous strategic importance. The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder read between the lines:

The way in which the story was presented — with on-the-record quotations from the Commander in Chief of CENTCOM, no less — and the weird promotion of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense to Undersecretary of Defense suggest a broad and deliberate information operation designed to influence public opinion on the course of the war. Indeed, as every reader of Jared Diamond’s popular works of geographic determinism knows well, a country rich in mineral resources will tend toward stability over time, assuming it has a strong, central, and stable government.

Risen’s story notes that the minerals discovery comes at a propitious time. He focuses on lithium, a critical component of electronics. One official tells him that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” — a comparison to oil. (I can see it now: “We must wean ourselves off our dependence on foreign lithium!”)

Then came the inevitable NYT pushback defending the story. Risen’s response was a mixture of befuddlement that anyone was questioning his reporting, and “do you know who I am” entitlement:

Risen didn’t take kindly to the blogospheric criticism. “Bloggers should do their own reporting instead of sitting around in their pajamas,” Risen said. [His original quote was edited to make it family-friendly.]

“The thing that amazes me is that the blogosphere thinks they can deconstruct other people’s stories,” Risen told Yahoo! News during an increasingly hostile interview, which he called back to apologize for almost immediately after it ended. “Do you even know anything about me? Maybe you were still in school when I broke the NSA story, I don’t know. It was back when you were in kindergarten, I think.” (Risen and fellow Times reporter Eric Lichtblau shared a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Bush administration’s secret wiretapping program; this reporter was 33 years old at the time.)

Finally, NYT bureau chief Dean Baquet (full disclosure: a friend from my early Times-Picayune days) gave a more considered defense to Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast, making his key point here:

“Jim had been working on a bunch of stuff, but some of it had been put in a little bit of limbo. Months ago, he told me he had gotten this tip about the extensive survey work in Afghanistan that had never been done before. So two weeks ago, I told him, why don’t you go back to the Afghanistan mining story and do that one? And that’s it. There was literally no leak.”

If there was no strategic leak – if nobody in CentCom, the Pentagon or the White House pushed the story on Risen, and this week’s timing was essentially random – then that torpedoes the “New York Times was played” angle.

But the story is still problematic for several reasons. As the New York Times itself has often noted, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, the appearance of a conflict can often be as bad as an actual conflict.

Moreover, there’s a problem in the basic structure of the article as a traditional straight news story. Its point of view is: Here’s the paper of record telling you something new, and that’s all you need to know. But it presents its facts stripped of context essential to understand what’s actually happening.

The fact that Petraeus is quoted is still a giveaway: this is a politically important story that Pentagon officials want played up. They want it in the mix of the current debate on the Hill, in the push-and-pull between the White House and Defense Department, and in the public’s mind. Risen’s story makes no mention of this political background or how untapped mineral resources might figure in the Afghanistan policy debate. Given that a New York Times story on it will automatically put the issue front and center, we were owed that context. Instead, the story takes place in a political vacuum.

And while the story takes pains to note the difficulty of getting $1 trillion in mineral resources out of the ground, that angle was still underplayed. Besides being politically frakked, Afghanistan has virtually no infrastructure. Who knows how many decades and untold billions would be required to even begin extracting gold and lithium on an economically meaningful scale? The $1 trillion figure will end up being a lot, lot less once you subtract the costs of extraction (and, let’s be honest, the impossible-to-quantify – lives of who knows how many Afghan miners, environmental damage, etc.). Perhaps this really is a story about nothing, at bottom a political feint. (Performing its own traditional role – spitting in the eye of the New York Times – the Washington Post ran an AP story saying, in essence, “you’ll never get that stuff out.”)

Finally, the story should have acknowledged earlier reporting by McClatchy and others, and the apparently widespread general knowledge of these mineral resources. Pentagon officials may not have fed Risen the story. But its appearance still owes much to the Pentagon’s recent maneuvering to exploit these resources, if not literally then politically.


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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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