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The Real News We Ignore at Our Peril

As defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld used to entertain (and befuddle) reporters with his song-and-dance about Known Knowns, Known Unknowns, and Unknown Unknowns. This last category—“things we don’t know we don’t know,” as the inimitable Rummy put it—was the one that could really get you in trouble.

Allow me to posit a similar taxonomy for news. There’s Real News, based on fact and responsibly reported. Then there’s Fake News, made up of stuff propagated by disreputable outlets ranging from the National Enquirer and Breitbart to cable news networks and a bazillion websites. And finally there’s Real News That Gets Ignored. Once again, it’s that last category that will eventually land us in trouble.

A distinctive characteristic of the Trump era finds Fake News displacing Real News as the basis of what passes for our national conversation. This stems in part from the fact that Donald Trump himself obsessively denounces as fake any reporting he doesn’t like, with those in the news business repeating and thereby amplifying the president’s complaints no matter how bizarre or preposterous. But it’s also because Trump and his administration on a daily basis generate their own counter-narrative of news that they insist is genuine even though it’s manifestly bogus. The media landscape is thus awash in reports that one side or the other loudly condemns as fraudulent.

With all this emphasis on Fake News, the third category of our taxonomy has mushroomed. That is, the quantity of Real News that is underreported, shrugged off, or treated as an afterthought is increasing by leaps and bounds.


I was reminded of this the other day when the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released its latest update on how U.S. nation-building efforts in that country are faring.

This particular report focuses on a Defense Department-created entity called the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), charged with overseeing U.S. taxpayer-funded economic development projects in Afghanistan. From 2010 to 2014, Congress appropriated approximately $823 million to fund TFBSO operations in Afghanistan. SIGAR now provides what is, in effect, a report card.

Among its key findings regarding TFBSO’s performance are these:

Now, SIGAR has been releasing reports about waste, fraud, and abuse in the Afghanistan War for years. TFBSO’s abysmal performance, now irrefutable, is just the tip of the iceberg.


Notably, all SIGAR reports, including this latest one, are readily available online. There is no need for reporters to cajole some unnamed source into spilling the beans or for editors to worry about courting trouble by publishing leaked classified material. It’s all there for the New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, etc., etc., to bring to the attention of the public. Yet these prestigious outlets never seem able to spare much attention for TFBSO’s troubles.

We should not be surprised. As it stumbles from one year to the next, the wayward U.S. project in Afghanistan receives sporadic media coverage at best. Even when some tidbit of awfulness attracts an occasional nod—when we learn, for example, that Afghan opium production has today reached yet another all-time high [1]the story ends up being a one-day affair, with no serious follow-up. Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, is a prime example of Real News That Gets Ignored.

There are many other examples. Staying in the arena of national security policy, other neglected stories include foreign arms sales (here the U.S. is truly the world’s number one [2]), the global disposition of U.S. forces (now present in two-thirds of the world’s countries) [3], cost overruns of major weapons programs [4], and the ongoing trillion-dollar modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal [5].

Let me emphasize: It’s not that you can’t find the odd reference to such matters, whether in your local newspaper or on TV. But compare the coverage such stories receive to the extravagant attention conferred on women graduating from the U.S. Army’s Ranger School or the service eligibility of transgendered persons. No doubt those are worthy topics. Yet at the end of the day they are unlikely to have anything more than marginal relevance to the safety and security of the United States.

The Real News That Gets Ignored poses a greater threat to the nation’s well-being than any of the Fake News in which we are presently drowning. And the fault is not Trump’s alone.

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "The Real News We Ignore at Our Peril"

#1 Comment By SteveM On January 11, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

To further illustrate the hidden perversion, Lockheed Martin and the other big defense contractors are named contributors to the ostensibly left-leaning National Public Radio (NPR).

So when was the last time NPR ran a feature story on the hyper-busted DoD acquisition programs led by those same contractors that wasted BILLIONS of taxpayer dollars?

And when was the last time NPR interviewed a Pentagon General/Admiral (active duty or retired) where the host assertively challenged him about the bankrupt interventionist policies that the Pentagon Brass invariably front for?

And it’s not just NPR. The general take-away is that the Cronies have bought off the MSM without the public ever recognizing that they are now being played for chumps.

#2 Comment By Alex Ingrum On January 11, 2018 @ 1:58 pm

If Republicans truly cared about fiscal responsibility, they would be up in arms at the egregious waste and cronyism of the Afghanistan war.

Thank you, Andrew Bacevich, for keeping us informed about the excesses and depravity of U.S. militarism and imperialism.

#3 Comment By E Kent On January 11, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

In the interest of fairness after reading Steve M’s comment, a cursory search of NPR’s website shows plenty of stories on this very issue. Stories about the whole F-35 cost overrun, stories about money wasted in Afghanistan, stories about the sunk cost fallacy in action in government spending.

Really, I’ve found NPR to be one of the only reputable news sources to actually go to the trouble of reporting on these nitty gritty overlooked kinds of stories. They love having an under reported subject that they can devote a little chunk of airtime to. I’ve known about this stuff for years now, mostly through listening to NPR.

That said, your opinion could be formed by what your NPR affiliate chooses to air, as the stations chooses what programs under the NPR umbrella they broadcast. Most of this stuff is reported more regularly on shows other than the “news of the day” stuff, and since I get poor radio reception I listen to a lot of their weekly shows like Planet Money or This American life in podcast form now.

#4 Comment By John Kelly On January 11, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

The amount of actual news that gets passed over in favor of the latest scandal-of-the-week, celebrity gossip, or natural disaster is definitely a major barrier to having an informed citizenry and therefore a healthy democracy. I encourage anyone interested in this do regularly visit Projectcensored.org, which highlights underreprted news and produces an annual “Top 25 Most Censored Stories” report.

#5 Comment By Doug On January 11, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

This is a direct consequence of no push back on Pentagon funding. Democrats used to do that, but they have been co-oped or beat into submission. Listening to the news this morning I was treated to a Republican congressman telling me that the Pentagon needed more money! In the next breath saying that the sequester legislation that tied domestic spending to military spending created problems because you know “spending on civilians is a waste” . We spend way too much money on the military–including their contractors (really expensive and not cost effective). But you can’t say that out loud anymore or you are unpatriotic. All hail Caesar!

#6 Comment By Steve S. On January 11, 2018 @ 3:01 pm

When exploratory surgery reveals that cancer is all through a patient’s body, they sew the patient back up, prescribe him/her some opiates and send them home to wait for the inevitable cascading organ failure. I wonder if the cancer of corruption in our country has spread to a similar point where struggling for reform is a waste of time. I said that I “wonder”. I wouldn’t claim to be certain.
However, I’m certain that as long as the Supreme Court’s “Citizen United” court decision is the law of the land, there’ll be no reform of anything that places corporate interests above citizen’s interests.
Since corporations are extractive by nature and see no further than their fiscal quarter’s stock price, all resources, natural and human, will be reduced until there is nothing left to be consumed by them and in turn by us. This is unsustainable and will eventually end with cascading deleterious effect.

#7 Comment By Hyperion On January 11, 2018 @ 3:03 pm

It is ALL too complicated to keep up with. Our modern life is now influenced by many unanticipated phenomena. No person, however intelligent and motivated, has the resources to follow these phenomena. In other words, we cannot even “document the atrocities”, never mind respond appropriately to them.

I wonder what the point is of “keeping us informed about the excesses and depravity of U.S. militarism and imperialism”.

I do not know how to address/handle the complexity we are mired in. But I do recognize it as preeminent.

#8 Comment By Liam On January 11, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

Here’s another piece of Real News that goes regularly goes stag to the prom:

Good. But. The USA’s most important existential threat comes from…not the Middle East…not Russia…not China…but…failed states in MesoAmerica.

Read a map.

The problem is the failed states in MesoAmerica problem is not nearly as profitable to the industries that dominate those who lobby and provide infotainment.

#9 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On January 11, 2018 @ 3:29 pm

The “left” is focused on identity and gender politics, and Trumpland seems to be occupied by neoconnery. As long as the chattering classes and the rich don’t see their children going off to Afghanistan or Somalia, they really don’t care. Let the rubes from flyover country confront the IEDs.

All this for the sake of “democracy” and “human rights.”

#10 Comment By Christian Chuba On January 11, 2018 @ 4:23 pm

“Only $70 million of the $316.3 million obligated on contracts directly supporting TFBSO programs (22 percent) fully achieved their objectives”

Opium production is booming in Afghanistan, I hope that is just a coincidence.

#11 Comment By Interguru On January 11, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

As long as there are few soldiers returning home in coffins, no one gives a damn.

#12 Comment By Brian Villanueva On January 11, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

We’re awash in newsertainment.

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 11, 2018 @ 4:44 pm

To a class of people who make money from an empire project whose blueprint is Full Spectrum Dominance, the only lost wars are those that end. Part of war is the suspension of reporting truth and substituting propaganda for the duration. If the wars are Forever, that is tantamount to the permanent abolition of truth.

Not a week goes by that I don’t remember Andy Bacevich, whose life was sacrificed to the substitution of propaganda for truth.

#14 Comment By Whine Merchant On January 11, 2018 @ 4:59 pm

@Grumpy Old Man: right, as usual! It is America’s underclass that fights, dies, and returns physically and psychologically maimed [to shamefully under-resourced assistance].

The alleged “small gov’t” GOP/Tea Party is really the prison/military/fiance industry party in the way that the Democrats were once the Organised Labor party [until VietNam and Nixon].

The public has been molded to focus on the shining objects and has mass ADHD with no attention span. The GOP think that intellect is treason and NASCAR is King, while the Progressives think that Identity is everything and social justice is God. As long as so many [potential] voters believe that reality TV is their role model and that social media is Reality, the situation will only deteriorate.

#15 Comment By Cynthia McLean On January 11, 2018 @ 6:46 pm

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie. the standards of thought) no longer exist.
— Hannah Arendt

#16 Comment By David Gardiner On January 11, 2018 @ 6:57 pm

I find it so very frustrating — and, really, hopeless for our nation — that I rarely hear, from even the most respected news outlets, anything of the nature of what Andrew Bacevich regularly addresses in his columns. I weep for the destruction created by our monstrous military/industrial complex but even moreso for the lost opportunities to invest the monies in areas that will genuinely elevate our nation. Health care, infrastructure, education, etc. Our 4th estate, so vital to our democracy, is grievously shirking its patriotic duty and it must be because of the money sources they dare not offend. It is truly a shame and, if it is not reversed, I think our nation is doomed.

#17 Comment By RVA On January 11, 2018 @ 11:25 pm

From Wikipedia: “The Golden Triangle is one of Asia’s two main opium-producing areas. It is an area of approximately 950,000 square kilometres (367,000 sq mi) that overlaps the mountains of three countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Along with Afghanistan in the Golden Crescent, it has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia, and of the world, since the 1950s. Most of the world’s heroin came from the Golden Triangle until the early 21st century when Afghanistan became the world’s largest producer.”

And who were the new arrivals in the early 21st century to Afghanistan? The Taliban had opium under control. Not since. A war zone, planes and contractors flying everywhere… what do you think is happening? Before this current longest war, where was America’s previous longest war, until we lost it? With planes and contractors flying everywhere?

1976 to 2001. 25 years. A generation. To forget. Those in charge have learned to keep our casualties below the threshold of public attention. Here we remember our dear Andrew. Who else? And it does not matter to us how many locals die.

My nomination for Underreported Story: how we’re just watching America bleed out, financing the heroin trade. That not so coincidentally is scourging the American heartland, as our means disappear. Our nation is losing altitude and gaining speed. Failing test after test. Business as usual, until…

It’s just a math equation we’re watching roll out. The answer isn’t a surprise… there will just be a lot of surprised people.

#18 Comment By MikeCLT On January 12, 2018 @ 9:14 am

“And the fault is not Trump’s alone.”

That is mighty generous of you. This isn’t Trump’s fault at all. Afghanistan is not his war.

If the NYT, WaPo, ABC, NBC, CBS, et. al., wanted to make these stories national news they could. Scandals are only scandals when the media makes them so. Your article would be much better if you directed your fire at the responsible parties.

#19 Comment By Cstahnke On January 12, 2018 @ 10:10 am

At the center of the bogus war on terror starting with Afghanistan is corruption, corruption, corruption. We fight wars so we can fight wars and spend money on ordinance and various rackets. The greatest accomplishment the U.S. can compliment itself is a high standard of living for those in the drug trade.

#20 Comment By Bill C On January 12, 2018 @ 9:09 pm

The real story behind this “real news/fake news” editorial is the classic military-industrial complex profiteering on a grand scale. More grand than ever, especially since Dickster Cheney privatized so much of the war machine, costing American taxpayers more than $1 trillion dollars with no end in sight. It’s all about the profit. Create enemies, keep us in fear, sell weapons to both sides, and the never ending profit flows forever.

#21 Comment By Bill C On January 12, 2018 @ 9:10 pm

The real story behind this “real news/fake news” editorial is the classic military-industrial complex profiteering on a grand scale. More grand than ever, especially since Dickster Cheney privatized so much of the war machine, costing American taxpayers more than $1 trillion dollars with no end in sight. It’s all about the profit. Create enemies, keep us in fear, sell weapons to both sides, and the never ending profit flows forever.

#22 Comment By E. Dolphin On January 13, 2018 @ 12:28 pm


With due respect, Alex, this issue is non-partisan, and it would appear your criticism of Republicans also applies to Democrats.

Since Bill Clinton shifted the Democrat Party away from their anti-war stance and into the political centrist position in regard to fiscal affairs related to spending on weapons and warfare, yes both parties are irresponsible fiscally.

There was a time Republicans were also anti-war. They were challenged to adopt a more defensive posture when the John Birch Society induced them by exacerbating the Red Scare with its Domino Theory and making Republicans who opposed spending on war seem pro-Russian and Communism, while they were, in fact, upholding the US Constitution.

#23 Comment By Rose On January 13, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

It’s a chicken-egg question to ask whether news consumption drives “headlines” and trending stories or news-gathering organizations happen to arrive at a concensus. All I’m sure of is that topics as seemingly complex as Afghanistan and the region in entirety, and detail-rich reporting on systemic issues that require an appreciation of history reaching beyond two administrations ago is not now or ever going to grab headlines.
Watching Burns and Novick’s excellent and heartbreaking Vietnam was proof enough to me that we haven’t improved. Although the press served as a kind of check on Vietnam and Nixon’s overreach, look where we are now. No institution is going to save us.

#24 Comment By BruceS On January 14, 2018 @ 1:31 pm

The article and comments are all facets that reflect the real problem. The congress is made up of professional politicians who work is primarily focuses on reelection. Few too many do not have the skills to find direction much less lead us. Our choice is too often among the least offensive and many feel like it doesn’t make any difference anyway. How often are we told “campaigne speak” is just that and doesn’t mean what they really mean or think. The chacteristics you need to become a successful politian are exactly the wrong characteristic necessary to be a good politician. We have a real problem in this country with a disengaged public that is loosing hope.

#25 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On January 14, 2018 @ 6:59 pm

If there was truly a just and loving God, Andrew Bacevich would be President. Both Republicans and Democrats know as sure as the rising sun, any candidate of either party who advocates cuts in defense spending will be labeled a traitor to America’s security and a naive anti-military weasel. How dare any person not support our fighting men and women? Case closed.

#26 Comment By David Rankin On January 14, 2018 @ 7:06 pm

LBJ confessed on the phone to a friendly senator that he knew that Vietnam War could not be won. But he feared an electoral loss in 1964 if told the public the truth. So Americans kept dying in those rice paddies.
Is Trump similarly fearful that he would suffer electoral damage if he pulls all Americans troops out of Afghanistan and effectively leaves that nation to the mercies of the Taliban?
I suspect that Trump is under no illusions about the ability of a government in Kabul, any government in Kabul, to resist the Taliban on its own. And he is on record as being opposed to “nation building.” The US went there in the first place to evict the Taliban and then to assist in the process of nation building.
The result is that Trump is on the hook. Hard to predict what he’ll do or, for that matter, what any other American president would do.

#27 Comment By Connecticut Farmer On January 15, 2018 @ 8:52 am

We have spent more time in Afghanistan than in any theater of war in our history. And what have we accomplished?

The silence to that last question is deafening.