Over the weekend, 10 Afghan journalists were eating their last meals and having their final conversations with their loved ones, but they didn’t know it. On Monday, they were murdered in attacks that specifically targeted them — one was shot by assailants in Khost province, the others were killed in Kabul when a suicide bomber mixed with them as they reported on a bombing that had just happened. This hardly counts as news in America, because we have peculiar ideas on what constitutes bravery in journalism.
While these Afghan reporters were living their final hours in relative obscurity, hundreds of American journalists were celebrating themselves in a glitzy Washington, D.C. ballroom. Their good humor was thrown off kilter when a comedian, Michelle Wolf, delivered a lacerating routine that criticized the Trump administration, especially its chief spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Later, many of the journalists in the ballroom, and others who hadn’t been there, lined up to perform a peculiarly inverted version of courage — apologizing to Sanders and anyone else who might have been offended by the comedian’s short gig.
If you have the misfortune of being on Twitter and following a journalist or two, as I sadly do, you will be familiar with the tweet-by-tweet drama that has been playing out in 280 characters or less. Should journalists apologize when a little-known comedian skewers a powerful government official? Why are journalists apologizing for a comedian who did what journalists are supposed to do? And why, every damn year, do so many journalists stampede down a red carpet to join soft hands with government officials in a chummy evening of laughter over not-so-funny jokes about drone warfare and the invasion of Iraq?
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner touches on everything that is lucratively diseased in Washington journalism — but the martyrdom of 10 journalists in Afghanistan tells you everything you need to know about hardscrabble courage in the profession. I have seen this in every war zone and authoritarian nation I’ve reported from: ordinary men and women who risk and sacrifice their lives to report on powerful people and institutions whose displeasure will be expressed in far more serious ways than an unreturned phone call. Yaser Murtaja, Anna Politkovskaya, Peter Julius Moi, Almigdad Mojalli, Marie Colvin and Khalid Hassan, to name a few. It’s shocking to see how brave they are. In Afghanistan alone, 34 journalists and media workers have been killed by the Taliban and the Islamic State since the start of 2016, according to a tally by Reporters Without Borders.
If you’re reporting on an authoritarian regime (as America is becoming) or a ruthless insurgency, and you don’t fear for your livelihood or your life, you are probably doing something wrong. If you are concerned that you will not get invited to a background briefing or won’t be handed a morsel of news that is a scoop for 15 seconds, you are worrying about the wrong things. If you are defending the honor of a powerful official in a dishonest government, rather than working all-out to expose their corruption, you should hand your notebook to someone who will do the job right.
American journalists pride themselves on their journalism culture — we have prizes galore, we have a giant (and debt-ridden) museum in our honor, we have journalism schools that attract students from across the world. When a famous television journalist dies, like Tim Russert, he is lauded as one of the greats, a model for all time. Yes, there certainly is great journalism done in this country — the latest Pulitzer Prize recipients and finalists are fine examples. But let’s look at Afghanistan, because we are not the center of the journalism universe.
America has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for the past 17 years, and it has been a catastrophe for ordinary Afghans, yet we hear little about it these days. What we know about war and life in Afghanistan is reported almost exclusively by Afghans — people like Shah Marai, a veteran photographer for Agence France Press who was killed in the suicide blast in Kabul, or Maharram Durrani, who just a week ago started at a radio station and was killed in that same blast, or Ahmad Shah, a BBC reporter in Khost who was shot on his bike. The other assassinated journalists were Yar Mohammad Tokhi, Abadullah Hananzai, Sabawoon Kakar, Ghazi Rasuli, Nawruz Ali Rajabi, Salim Talash, and Ali Salimi.
Instead of celebrating themselves, the satisfied reporters of Washington, D.C. should honor the journalists who show real courage in their work. There’s talk of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner being changed in some way, because it’s collapsing under the weight of its absurdity, so here’s a suggestion: Move it to Afghanistan. OK, I know that’s not going to happen. So here’s another suggestion for the gala-attending journalists of America: Just shut the fuck up about yourselves and do the kind of brave work that journalists are doing all over the world every day.