Why the Corporate Media Loves a Bombing

From Syria to North Korea, the press is growing hungry for war.

Bill Berkowitz April 20, 2017

A U.S. plane drops bombs over Vietnam. Then as now, the press would gush over U.S. military might. (U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons)

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!” 

With admittedly limited resources, all too often the corporate media latch onto the narrative that comes out of Washington.

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 247 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.

Bill Berkowitz is an Oak­land, Calif.-based writer who has been mon­i­tor­ing and cov­er­ing U.S. right-wing move­ments for the past 16 years.
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