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Journalismism

This Is What Propaganda Looks Like

Why is the New York Times rushing to explain away a drone strike which killed ten innocent people?

New York Times front page about the war in Afghanistan

Below, you will find the front page of Tuesday morning’s New York Times.

Front pages are not as significant as they once were—the Times has been quite open about the deprioritization of its printed product—but they are still the most permanent, tangible indication of how a newspaper thinks about any given story, and they are still every bit as reflective of that news outlet as any other part of its output.

The latest Times front page is understandably dominated by the formal end of the 20-year American occupation of Afghanistan. (Sorry, media hawks, it still happened despite you.) But it also contains something quite sinister.

It’s hard to spot right away, so I’ll help you out. Wedged in a little box down the right rail is this teaser:

There is so much here. For a start, by squeezing the news into a box and urging its readers to turn to an inside page, the Times has signaled that the Biden administration’s killing of ten innocent Afghans—two of whom were just two years old—is an important but unmistakably less significant story than the rest of its front page offerings. And then there is that framing: “UNINTENDED DEATHS.”

This is where we transition from the realm of news and enter the realm of propaganda. With just two words, the Times is rushing to soothe its readers about the fact that the United States blew innocent people to smithereens in a drone strike. Don’t worry, the paper is saying, we’re still the good guys here. It was “unintended.” It was an accident. People are sorry. It shouldn’t trouble you too much.

What makes this even weirder is that the story that readers would encounter if they turned to page A6 is full of wrenching details of the carnage caused by the strike. It also winds up highlighting the blithe way in which the Pentagon addressed the horrors it perpetrated:

The Pentagon acknowledged the possibility that Afghan civilians had been killed in the drone strike, but suggested that any civilian deaths had resulted from the detonation of explosives in the vehicle that was targeted.

“We’re not in a position to dispute it,” John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Monday about reports of civilian casualties. He repeated earlier Pentagon statements that the military was investigating a strike on a vehicle two miles from Hamid Karzai International Airport. But it was unclear whether this was the same as the incident involving Mr. Ahmadi’s vehicle.

If the chief Pentagon spokesman can’t be bothered to muster up even a token apology, why is the Times racing to frame its actions in this way on its front page?

The bigger question is this: how many innocent people have to die before something escapes the realm of “tragic blunder” and becomes worthy of a deeper moral reckoning? The U.S. has killed thousands of civilians (that we know of) in drone strikes, so at a certain point, it might be time to grapple with the fact that this is a level of human suffering that our government is quite comfortable with, whether it explicitly “intends” to kill civilians or not. The Times itself has reported in the past that the U.S. often carried out drone strikes in Afghanistan without being sure of who it was going after. Another way of putting that is that the U.S. government has a reasonable expectation that it might kill innocent people, and doesn’t really care.

But that is not the message the Times wants to send its readers about this latest attack. Its goal is explicit: to explain away an obviously outrageous event.