Afghanistan has qualified as Story of the Day on three of the four days of anchor Brian Williams' field trip to the country for NBC. This time it attracted most coverage by virtue of extended features rather than by making news. None of the three newscasts led with an Afghan story. NBC chose an update on the H1N1 swine 'flu. CBS covered White House claims that its fiscal stimulus prevented 640K workers from being unemployed. ABC also led with the economy and worries that consumers will spend too little over the Christmas holidays. NBC's newscast was co-anchored by Williams in Kabul and Today's Ann Curry in the New York studio.    
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video thumbnailCBSAfghanistan's Taliban regime aftermath, fightingPentagon brass put public pressure on PresidentDavid MartinPentagon
video thumbnailNBCAfghanistan's Taliban regime aftermath, fightingGuerrillas' comeback drives refugees into KabulRichard EngelAfghanistan
video thumbnailNBCAfghanistan orphanage houses wartorn childrenNeeds foreign funding to maintain operationBrian WilliamsAfghanistan
video thumbnailABCMilitary role of female soldiers debatedServe in ill-defined Iraqi, Afghan combat zonesMartha RaddatzWashington DC
video thumbnailNBCPakistan-US diplomacy: Secy Rodham Clinton visitsDefends tough response to anti-US protestsAndrea MitchellPakistan
video thumbnailCBSUnemployment: corporate layoffs continueWhite House claims created, saved stimulus jobsChip ReidWhite House
video thumbnailABCConsumer spending, confidence statisticsMay depend on federal breaks, retailers worryBetsy StarkNew York
video thumbnailABCChild labor violations investigatedMichigan fruit agribusiness needs small fingersBrian RossNew York
video thumbnailCBSCongressional ethics investigations publicizedList of suspect House members released by errorSharyl AttkissonWashington DC
video thumbnailNBCInfluenza season: swine strain H1N1 virus outbreakWeekly data show children's deaths increasingRobert BazellNew York
NBC’S ENGEL FILES AFGHANISTAN EXPLAINER Afghanistan has qualified as Story of the Day on three of the four days of anchor Brian Williams' field trip to the country for NBC. This time it attracted most coverage by virtue of extended features rather than by making news. None of the three newscasts led with an Afghan story. NBC chose an update on the H1N1 swine 'flu. CBS covered White House claims that its fiscal stimulus prevented 640K workers from being unemployed. ABC also led with the economy and worries that consumers will spend too little over the Christmas holidays. NBC's newscast was co-anchored by Williams in Kabul and Today's Ann Curry in the New York studio.

The meat of NBC's Afghanistan coverage consisted of a five-minute explainer by Richard Engel covering the course of the war since 2001. His narrative had Taliban guerrillas fleeing Afghanistan and regrouping in the tribal areas of Pakistan after the US invasion ousted its regime. "Around 2005, the Taliban returned to Afghanistan--because they could. Back then there were few US troops in Afghanistan. Many more were being deployed to Iraq and the Afghan army only had 35,000 men."

NBC's Engel estimates that the Taliban now has 25,000 guerrillas deployed across about 80% of Afghan territory. He showed us the squalid refugee camps on the outskirts of Kabul filling with peasants fleeing fighting in the south. "In the Afghan countryside, Taliban militants now openly patrol, subsidized by a robust opium trade, and although they are unpopular, few Afghans have been willing to fight the Taliban, afraid US forces might leave and they will be hunted down. Other Afghans choose not to fight the Taliban because the alternative is to support the Afghan government, which is widely seen as corrupt and ineffective."

Back at the Pentagon, CBS' David Martin perceived a potential "watershed" in Barack Obama's relationship with senior military leaders. Martin cited public statements by Chairman Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by a pair of generals, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. The trio insisted on a strategy of counterinsurgency in support of the Afghan government, requiring troop reinforcements. The White House believes the brass was "boxing the President in with their public statements," Martin reported.

The sheer logistics of a reinforcement mean that the Commander-in-Chief is under no immediate deadline to decide what to do, CBS' Martin pointed out. Even if he ordered 40,000 more troops into battle "it would be 2011 before they all got there." Building facilities to house the extra troops means that the maximum pace of deployment is one brigade per quarter. In Kabul, NBC's Engel agreed: "The military moves very, very slowly." By then, CBS' Martin added, counterinsurgency might be moot: "McChrystal has warned it could be lost in the next twelve months."

NBC’S ORPHANAGE PLEDGE BREAK NBC anchor Brian Williams rounded out his week in Afghanistan with what amounted to a fundraising pitch. His Making a Difference report from a girls' orphanage in Kabul introduced us to Andisha Farid, its founder, and several of her waifs. Farid "grew up a refugee, displaced and scrounging." Farid told Williams that each orphan has to be financially supported by a foreign sponsor and that global fundraising is lagging: "We told her we have generous viewers so if you would like to help you can go to our Website."

ABC’S RADDATZ REPUDIATES NBC’S SHRIVER ABC did not file from Afghanistan per se but Martha Raddatz' feature, filed from ABC's bureau in Washington, used footage from that warzone. Raddatz tried to stir up controversy with the claim that "the image of young women in a hot dusty combat zone toting automatic weapons is still startling to some"--an outdated sentiment that NBC devoted much of last week (here, here, here and here) trying to debunk, with Maria Shriver's A Woman's Nation series. Raddatz gets away with her startling statement by using that weaselly qualifier to some.

Anyway, the Pentagon prohibits female soldiers from serving in ground combat units. Instead, they are assigned to roles such as "aviators, military police, intelligence, civil affairs." Raddatz explained that such separation is often a figment since "the front lines in these wars are blurred." As a result the female death toll so far is 103 in Iraq and 15 in Afghanistan. She showed us a Female Engagement Team, deployed by the Marine Corps to extract intelligence from Afghan women. Being questioned by male soldiers would be taboo.

HILLARY EXPLAINS BLUNT TALK Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton continued her diplomacy in Pakistan and offered sitdowns with the traveling press corps. NBC and ABC took her up on her offer; CBS skipped the q-&-a. ABC's Jim Sciutto addressed the Secretary's newsmaking accusation from Thursday, in which she said: "al-Qaeda has had a safe haven in Pakistan since 2002 and I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and could not get them if they really wanted to." Sciutto did not repeat the quote. He did ask: "Do you believe the Pakistani government is in effect harboring terrorists." Madame Secretary backtracked: "I do not think that they are. I think that they have gone after the enemies who most directly threaten them."

Both ABC's Sciutto and NBC's Andrea Mitchell were struck by the vitriol that Rodham Clinton encountered. At a university symposium "you came across a wall of resistance and suspicion, low grade anger. They challenged you," noted Mitchell. "That audience was silent. There was no applause." ABC's Sciutto put it this way: "You have heard animosity here. You have heard real doubts about America's intentions. You heard conspiracy theories." Madame Secretary saw the bright side. "I want, at least, people to go away saying: 'Well, no American official has ever come and listened to us like that,'" she told ABC. "They understand that, if we are talking about the kind of partnership that I believe we should be, that is not just a one-way street," was her line on NBC.

VERIFYING THE COUNTERFACTUAL "How can anyone claim success when unemployment is almost 10%?" That was Chip Reid's paraphrase of incredulous critics on CBS in response to the White House's estimate that $159bn of this spring's stimulus spending has reduced unemployment levels by 640K jobs. Reid offered the counter-argument by Vice President Joe Biden: "Without the stimulus, it would be even higher." ABC's White House correspondent Jake Tapper stated flatly that "it is impossible" to verify Biden's data. "There is no uniform set of standards as what it means to save a job versus to create a job, no way to verify that someone would actually have been laid off without the stimulus money." CNBC's economist Steve Liesman conceded on NBC that there are "probably some questions that might surround some numbers" before concluding that "there is an attempt being made by this administration to be transparent about these data."

So where are these saved or created jobs? CBS' Reid reported claims that 325K of the 640K are in education and 80K in construction. CBS sent two correspondents to corroborate. Ben Tracy in Los Angeles told us that $7bn in federal funds out of the $100bn assigned to education nationwide ended up in California yet there were still 20K teaching jobs lost statewide anyway. Tracy told us that the state cut its education spending by $6bn so, without the federal subsidy, the layoffs would have climbed to 82K. In Chicago, Dean Reynolds showed us a small business expansion, a job training program and road building projects, all of which would not have happened sans stimulus.

CHRISTMAS IN OCTOBER Thursday, ABC's Betsy Stark and CBS' Anthony Mason reported that Gross Domestic Product statistics indicate a growing economy. Now, the same two reporters grapple with contradictory data. CBS' Mason called them "the worst consumer spending numbers since last December." According to ABC's Stark, "the new numbers on consumer spending are a clear sign that Americans are hard-pressed to spend without a big government incentive." CNBC's economist Steve Liesman put the debate this way on NBC: is the recent GDP expansion "something that was fostered as sort of artificial from government spending? Or is the economy really sort of finding its own legs?"

CBS' Mason cited the results of a Consumer Reports survey that 65% of Americans plan to cut back during the holidays. ABC's Stark watched the response by the retail chains--Sears, K-mart, Best Buy, Toys'R'Us--"trying to outdo each other in an early battle for the holiday dollar."

BLUEBERRIES BLACKBALLED ABC's Brian Ross offered a hat-tip to a quartet of graduate students with Carnegie Corporation fellowships. They singled out a blueberry farm in Michigan for child labor abuses. Fruit from Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing will no longer be sold by the supermarkets of Kroger, Meijer and Walmart after their expose. The fellows explained that small fingers are especially adept at harvesting fruit that has to be picked by hand. They found children aged five, seven and eight working the bushes this summer. Do not focus on Adkin alone, Ross warned. These abuses occur "in virtually every state, in fruit and vegetable fields, where fruit and vegetables are picked by hand."

RANGEL & MURTHA HAVE COMPANY CBS' Sharyl Attkisson offered a hat-tip to Carol Leonnig, Washington Post columnist, for getting her hands on the list of members of Congress under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee. In "an embarrassing breach from one of the most secretive committees on Capitol Hill, a House Ethics staffer posted a confidential report where the public could access it," Attkisson reported. Leonnig obtained a copy before it was deleted from online view.

Attkisson had a special interest in the names, since she had already filed a total of six separate stories on the allegations against two senior Democrats, Charles Rangel and John Murtha. Now she finds out that six other members of Murtha's appropriations committee are also "under review for allegedly trading earmarks for campaign contributions." She named names: Republican committee members Bill Young and Todd Tiahrt; Democratic committee members Peter Visclosky, James Moran, Norm Dicks and Marcy Kaptur. In fairness, Attkisson noted that Reps Dicks, Kaptur and Tiahrt have denied wrongdoing; Reps Murtha, Visclosky, Moran and Young have withheld comment.

‘FLU, ‘FLU, ‘FLU CONT’D The week could not be complete without yet another pair of updates in the interminable coverage of the influenza outbreak. CBS' in-house physician Jon LaPook showed us examples of the public health outreach, using celebrity PSAs and telephone hotlines, to disseminate vaccine and hygiene information. NBC's Robert Bazell repeated the worries from the Centers for Disease Control that many infected patients with underlying conditions--asthma, heart disease, lung disease--are failing to visit a doctor immediately they feel symptoms. Last week's child death toll from H1N1 is equivalent to half the number of children that usually dies in an entire year from the seasonal 'flu.