The latest media-politics revolving door news is that Time managing editor Richard Stengel is leaving the magazine and heading over to the State Department to be the new undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. That's PR–or maybe propaganda, if you prefer that term.
It makes news when journalists jump into politics, and it seems like many have done so during the Obama administration. (Cue the usual noise about this proving liberal media bias!) But it's worth asking whether this is as big a jump as it might seem; one can, after all, serve U.S. foreign policy interests while editing a national political magazine.
Back in 2010, the WikiLeaks cables about the Afghan War served to portray a conflict that was in far more trouble than the U.S. government was willing to admit publicly. So at that very critical moment, Stengel's magazine put a dramatic image on the cover: A young woman who was brutalized, as the cover text told readers, "on orders from the Taliban." And the cover headline sent the intended message: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan."
The implication could not have been any clearer: Leaving Afghanistan, a policy many Americans supported, would create more atrocities like this. The fact that this particular act of violence occurred while the U.S. military was already occupying the country complicates the storyline, of course, but no matter. (There's also some question about how connected, if at all, the Taliban were to this atrocity–see Extra!, 10/10.)
In the magazine, Stengel wrote that the cover story explained "how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban." As to the image itself, he defended its use, since
bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening–and what can happen–in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.
Of course, plenty of "bad things" happen in Afghanistan–that was part of the story the WikiLeaks documents told the world, particularly about the extent of Afghan suffering as a result of the U.S. war.
Stengel observed that WikiLeaks had "ratcheted up the debate about the war," and Time was contributing to that discussion:
As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time. What you see in these pictures and our story is something that you cannot find in those 91,000 documents: a combination of emotional truth and insight into the way life is lived in that difficult land and the consequences of the important decisions that lie ahead.
But responding to the WikiLeaks disclosures about the war by highlighting atrocities allegedly linked to the Taliban, and wrapping that around a call to prolong the U.S. military occupation, is less like journalism and more like propaganda.
Which is the job Stengel's taking now–formally.
* * *