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“The missiles flew, the explosives exploded, the nation was again at the cusp of war and the media were again at peace.” That’s how media critic Bob Garfield led off a special edition of NPR’s On the Media titled “How the Press Gets Seduced By War,” after President Trump ordered the dumping of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on a Syrian airbase last week. Garfield might just as well have said, “Here we go again!”
The strike set off a typical media frenzy. Some commentators proclaimed that the strike was indicative that “there’s a new sheriff in town,” that this isn’t a president “reluctant to use military force.” (Of course, we already knew that: Trump had already been happily using force in conflicts from Iraq to Somalia.) MSNBC’s Brian Williams thought he was waxing poetic by invoking — and defiling — the memory of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” saying: “I’m tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ “
To Garfield, the media’s reaction indicates the “overwhelming consensus that something had to be done about Assad. Trump did it. Moral and political justice had been served.”
The corporate media was shocked and awed, and by golly the 24/7 media was going to squeeze the most ratings it could possibly get out of Trump’s strike. As Garfield noted, “We’ve been here before.”
From the Vietnam era, Garfield played a gushing report by the late CBS investigative reporter Mike Wallace, discussing General Westmoreland’s glowing assessment of the United States’ overwhelming weapons superiority in Vietnam. From Westmoreland’s account, the U.S. public must have thought Vietnam would be a cakewalk. Instead it turned into Apocalypse Now. More recently, of course, the media disastrously overhyped George W. Bush’s Iraq War, which led us to a series of destabilized Iraqi governments, thousands of dead and wounded U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis, and now, some 14 years later, a fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
“How could it be,” Garfield asked, “that when we most need skeptical media, they so often fall into formation, and march to the official line?” Regardless of whether Trump’s strikes were the correct military response to the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, “How is the public supposed to evaluate its government’s actions when the media sound like an NFL broadcast?”
Trump’s action, and the response to similar military engagements — President Ronald Reagan’s attack on Grenada, President George H.W. Bush’s Panama expedition — leads the public to suspend critical thinking, resulting in unhinged jingoism. The government and media conflate support for the troops with uncritical support for military action.
“It’s the perfect expression of the American view of the world; comes from our Calvinist roots, that teaches us first of all that there’s good, that’s us, and then there’s evil, that’s out there,” Stephen Kinzer, Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, told Garfield.
“We love the binary narrative. Then we know who to hate; everything becomes easy. … What I find distressing is that the press jumps onto this also,” Kinzer added.
The problem with the media becoming unabashed cheerleaders for this, or any other military action, is that serious questions about the consequences of such actions don’t get asked. They get swept away in the fog of self-righteous blather and misguided patriotic fervor.
“If Assad is gone from power in Syria,” Kinzer told Garfield, “the most likely thing is that at least a large part of Syria is going to be run by ISIS or Al Qaeda. Now, is that better? Have we gotten somewhere?”
Kinzer pointed out that all too often “Americans use the wrong standard when deciding about interventions like this.” Overwhelmed by mass-marketed jingoism that ignores the bigger picture, Americans don’t quite understand that “the real question should be: What will be accomplished by our intervention? Are we actually going to get anything positive out it?”
The corporate media becomes witting or unwitting enablers, in it for the phosphorescence, for the punch to the gut, for promoting the government’s narrative of “We’re all in this together and we’re doing something against evil.”
“Rather than performing the role that the press is supposed to play, which is to ask questions and to look under the rug and to see if there’s not an alternative explanation, the press is doing the opposite,” Kinzer went on. “It is embracing the narrative that’s being handed out by power, and repeating it unquestioning.”
As of this writing, it is unclear to what extent Trump will get his desperately needed bump in approval ratings — but we shouldn’t be surprised if it happens. As Kinzer noted, ”Bombing another country always makes presidents popular at least in the short run.”
With admittedly limited resources, all too often the corporate media latch onto the narrative that comes out of Washington. Part of that narrative, more often than not, is that danger is all around us — a narrative the corporate press is more than willing to sink its teeth into, as it’s generally a ratings bonanza. It also allows the media to escape charges that it is anti-troops or anti-American — charges that can affect the network’s bottom line.
Last week, that narrative gave us the Tomahawking of Syria. That has been followed by a series of sometimes near-hysterical reports that North Korea is an existential threat — see the latest round of headlines about a “super-mighty preemptive strike” that might “reduce [the] U.S. to ashes.” Most Americans know very little about North Korea and appear more than willing to accept that narrative. Then again, few Americans appear to have any interest in another U.S. military engagement, let alone one that might include the use of nuclear weapons.
But now that the retired generals have been loosed upon our screens, now that the headline writers and graphics designers have been warmed up, it may be difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. The corporate media looks ready to give it a go in North Korea.
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