The Old Afghan Joke

The Old Afghan Joke

The Old Afghan Joke
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 17 2002 10:41 AM


Dear Peter,


Langewiesche's piece is amazing and, you're right, this will be the one that lasts. Unlike the ones that the networks are feverishly planning for the upcoming anniversary of that terrible day. A friend of mine at ABC News told me his network is producing a 17-hour series retracing as best they can the exact movements of many of those poor people trapped in the towers. Fox is launching a weeklong commemoration. You know the chief aim of all these TV extravaganzas will be to yank the heartstrings hard.

Which brings up an interesting question: When does news stop being news and become little more than ad hominem manipulation? When I was in Afghanistan last November I remember being floored by some of the tactics the TV people were using to "bolster" their coverage. We were in the North on the Taliban front lines where, at the time, absolutely nothing was happening other than a few daily bombing runs by B-52s. I watched the BBC guy set up his stand-up, and when it came time for him to deliver his spiel before the camera, he donned a flak jacket. Soon as the cameras were off, he took it off again. The Spanish TV news guys were even more egregious: They'd actually dub in gunfire sounds as backdrops to their broadcasts. The whole scene was like a page out of Catch-22, where the media was not just manipulating but actually creating the news on the ground. The international press was pouring millions of dollars a week into what was, in the North, a subsistence economy. Locals were making more money than they'd ever seen, and the greed factor was just insane. In the three weeks I was there, translators went from $30 a day to over $100, and the scramble for them, among the arriving hacks, was nasty. The Northern Alliance was making the most, though. Aside from the 20 percent the Alliance skimmed off the top from translators' fees and the 10 percent from drivers' fees, the Alliance charged $200 for reporters' entry visa fees, exit visa fees, and various fees for day passes to go anywhere. And since the Northern Alliance at the time operated the only helicopters in the region, they were able to set the prices on air transportation as well. I'm talking thousands for a 45-minute plane ride to the Panjir—and the networks were only too happy to pay. I can tell you, a lot of the Northern Alliance guys were more than a bit upset that the Taliban folded so quickly.

Which makes me believe that as long as the world honors its pledges and the money keeps pouring in, Karzai will be safe. There was a joke I heard many times over there from any number of Afghans (many of  whom have a particularly wicked sense of humor): You can't buy an Afghan, they'd tell me. But you can rent one.