Former Public Editor for The New York Times and currently media columnist for The Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan explains why the American media are such suckers for a missile explosion or two.
Exactly the same mechanism enabled Bush and Cheney to sell a false bill of goods on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the world is still paying the price. Trump has found the best way to silence his media critics; don’t call them names, just fire Tomahawk missiles at brown-skinned people in far off places.
The cruise missiles struck, and many in the mainstream media fawned.
“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night,” declared Fareed Zakaria on CNN, after the firing of 59 missiles at a Syrian military airfield late Thursday night. (His words sounded familiar, since CNN’s Van Jones made a nearly identical pronouncement after Trump’s first address to Congress.)
“On Syria attack, Trump’s heart came first,” read a New York Times headline.
“President Trump has done the right thing and I salute him for it,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens — a frequent Trump critic and Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist. He added: “Now destroy the Assad regime for good.”
Brian Williams, on MSNBC, seemed mesmerized by the images of the strikes provided by the Pentagon. He used the word “beautiful” three times and alluded to a Leonard Cohen lyric — “I am guided by the beauty of our weapons” — without apparent irony.
Quite the pivot, for some. Assessing Trump’s presidency a few weeks ago, Zakaria wrote that while the Romans recommended keeping people happy with bread and circuses, “so far, all we have gotten is the circus.” And the Times has been so tough on Trump that the president rarely refers to the paper without “failing” or “fake” as a descriptor.
But after the strikes, praise flowed like wedding champagne — especially on cable news.
“Guest after guest is gushing. From MSNBC to CNN, Trump is receiving his best night of press so far,” wrote Sam Sacks, a Washington podcaster and journalist. “And all he had to do was start a war.”
Why do so many in the news media love a show of force?
“There is no faster way to bring public support than to pursue military action,” said Ken Paulson, head of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
“It’s a pattern not only in American history, but in world history. We rally around the commander in chief — and that’s understandable.”
Paulson noted that the news media also “seem to get bored with their own narrative” about Trump’s failings, and they welcome a chance to switch it up.
But that’s not good enough, he said: “The watchdog has to have clear vision and not just a sporadic bark.”Clara Jeffery, editor in chief of Mother Jones, offered a simple explanation: “It’s dramatic. It’s good for TV, reporters get caught up in the moment, or, worse, jingoism.”
She added: “Military action is viewed as inherently nonpartisan, opposition or skepticism as partisan. News organizations that are fearful of looking partisan can fall into the trap of failing to provide context.”
And so, empathy as the president’s clear motivation is accepted, she said — “with no mention of the refugee ban keeping those kids out, no mention of Islamophobia that has informed his campaign and administration. How can you write about motive and not explore that hypocrisy?”
Mocking “the instant elevation of Trump into a serious and respected war leader,” Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept recalled John Jay, one of the Federalist Papers authors, who wrote more than 200 years ago: “However disgraceful it may be to human nature . . . nations in general will make war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it.”
In fact, Jay wrote, “absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it” — except, of course, to scratch that eternal itch for military glory, revenge or self-aggrandizement.
Groupthink, and a lack of proper skepticism, is something that we’ve seen many times before as the American news media watches an administration step to the brink of war.
Most notoriously, perhaps, that was true in the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, the start of a long disaster there.
Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international affairs, thinks the press and the public should have learned some things by now.
“Syria remains a tragedy because there are no good options,” he wrote in Foreign Policy, and America’s interventions in the Middle East very seldom end well.
Walt later told me that the news media now must look forward and ask deeper questions.
Missile strikes may seem thrilling, and retaliation righteous.
But journalists and commentators ought to remember the duller virtues, too, like skepticism, depth and context.
And keep their eyes fixed firmly there, not on the spectacular images in the sky.