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The War You’re Not Watching

The Gushing Oil Well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has overwhelmed television news coverage of late. The magnitude of the spill, so copiously documented, recently passed the 60-day mark. But another—and in many ways, far grimmer—anniversary was recorded this month as the conflict in Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam as America’s longest war.

The event didn’t exactly knock the gulf tragedy off the top of the hour. And for television news correspondents who have spent time in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, the challenge continues to be in bringing the eight-plus-year war home in a way that is relatable to U.S. viewers, who are also still overwhelmed by aftershocks of the Great Recession.

“Like any story that goes on for a long time, people can just shut it off,” says Parisa Khosravi, senior VP of international newsgathering for CNN/Worldwide. “The challenge is to make sure that you continue to tell the story and bring all the angles in.”

At a time when news organizations are facing diminishing resources and their own tough economic decisions, this challenge gets more difficult for news executives, who rely on their war-zone reporters to keep the war from being relegated to the back burner. Paul Friedman, executive VP of CBS News, praised the work of correspondent Terry McCarthy and digital reporter Mandy Clark—who has been covering Afghanistan while Lara Logan, the news division’s star war correspondent, has been on maternity leave. Still, Friedman notes Logan’s dogged dedication to covering Iraq and Afghanistan, and can’t deny that her intensity has been missed.

“I would think that the biggest factor in how much less we’ve had on the air really has to do with Lara Logan’s pregnancy than it does with anything else,” he says.

On the road again
The upcoming NATO operation in Kandahar, which is expected to commence in the coming weeks, could very well get Logan back on the road. And the push, a critical test for coalition forces, may also turn the television spigot back on full-force.

“There are a lot of stories here,” says Richard Engel, NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent, who is in the midst of a two-month rotation in Kabul. “I think we should cover it much more. I understand why people are tired. We’re in an eight-year war and there is a major domestic story going on right now. I understand the realities of programming.”

Coverage of the war in Afghanistan spiked in late 2009, after the disputed presidential elections there, and around the eighth anniversary of the war last October. But it has fallen off sharply this year, even as U.S. troop levels have increased and violence has peaked. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2.8% of the overall news hole has been dedicated to Afghanistan in 2010 (through June 6).

“When I think back on my own time covering Iraq, if you went out on a convoy, you were on the air that night,” says Martha Raddatz, senior foreign affairs correspondent at ABC News. “Now, you really have to drill down. And trust me, it’s a challenge.”

Raddatz says her recent embed with the U.S. Air Force 455th Air Expeditionary Wing for a combat mission over Kapisa Province in northeast Afghanistan elicited as much feedback as she’s gotten during all her years covering Iraq and Afghanistan. The story, which aired May 25 on World News and Nightline, culminated in a tense back-and-forth between the F-15 pilots and French ground troops.

“Everybody mentions [that story] to me,” she says. “And the good thing about that is they don’t say, ‘Hey, I saw you go upside down.’ They say, ‘Wow, that was incredible about the French.’ So, they listened to the story. Now, am I going to be able to do a fighter jet story every week? No. And if I did, people would get tired of it. And that’s what I mean about going over there and looking for stories.”

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