Time, Afghanistan and Conflicts of Interest

A couple of weeks ago, when I saw Time’s cover story about women in Afghanistan, something about it seemed … off … to me. It’s difficult to describe, but as soon as I saw the cover, my Spidey sense went off.

The cover in question features a young Afghan woman named Aisha, whose husband’s family cut off her nose and ears after she attempted to run away. The sell line on the cover states (not asks) “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.”

I remember thinking that it seemed to have a vein of demagoguery. With opposition to the Afghan war rising (or, at the very least, more people asking critical questions about why the U.S. and NATO remain there), this article seemed like a punch in the gut. “If we leave,” it seems to imply, “this will happen.”

The problems with that are A) while women’s rights are obviously important, that’s not why the U.S. is there, B) the U.S. being there didn’t prevent Aisha’s mutilation and C) the Hamid Karzai government has passed laws that are decidedly anti-women, apparently with the U.S.’s implicit blessing. So using the dangers Afghan women might face in the U.S.’s absence to frame the debate of involvement seems like a red herring. Surely the U.N., local advocacy groups, NGOs, missionary groups or other bodies would be better suited than the U.S. military to go to the mattresses for Afghan women.

After reading the article and making the aforementioned mental notes, I set the story aside. Yesterday, however, I saw a piece from the New York Observer questioning whether Aryn Baker, the Time reporter who wrote the story and had (she’s since been reassigned) the magazine’s Afghanistan/Pakistan beat, might have had an ulterior motive or conflict of interest in writing the story.

It turns out that Baker’s husband works on a board with the Afghan government that pushes to get foreign direct investment into the country. He had also worked with and ran companies in the past that solicited development contracts from both militaries and private companies.

In other words, at face value, it looks like Baker’s husband, and by extension Baker herself, would be gaining monetarily from continued U.S./NATO involvement in the region, and it looks curious at best and dishonest at worst that Baker happened to write a magazine piece that seems to advocate continued military involvement.

Time has, of course, defended Baker and denied a conflict existed (its full statement is included at the tail end of the Observer story). But the issue here, I’d say, is the appearance of a conflict. It may be that Baker has no monetary stake in the Afghan operation, or that it didn’t cross her mind when she wrote the story. In fact that’s probably the case; I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Perception is reality. If it looks like something is rotten in Denmark, then that will color people’s perceptions. Time had the opportunity to actually fuel a solid, grounded debate about implications of a U.S. withdrawal. Instead it finds itself hustling to defend a reporter’s integrity, and in a worst-case scenario, any further reporting it does on Afghanistan will be somewhat soured by this. Any number of writers could have taken on the story; that it was someone in Baker’s precise position was unfortunate.

Which brings me back to my Spidey sense going off. Now I know I wasn’t expecting a conflict-of-interest story to emerge, but I do know that my gut told me that something wasn’t quite right. I don’t know whether I had a sense that more was going on than it seemed, or if I had a negative reaction to what I thought was an appeal based more on emotional reactions than rationality.

Either way, this is a good example of trusting your gut. It’s also a lesson that journalists don’t exist inside a vacuum. We make human connections, we network, schmooze, marry, travel and spend money. And when our human lives intersect with our journalistic lives, it doesn’t take much to put our reputations on the line.

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