The Media Today

Is the press dragging America to war again?

February 5, 2024
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Last weekend, a militia backed by Iran launched a drone attack against a US military outpost close to Jordan’s borders with Iraq and Syria, killing three American service personnel. Quickly, media attention turned to how—and when, and where—the US might respond. On Tuesday, reporters shouted such questions at President Biden as he left the White House; he indicated that he had decided on a response—and insisted that he was not “looking for” a “wider war” in the Middle East—but was otherwise coy. Pressed for details, Biden stepped back, said “we’ll see,” then walked to his waiting helicopter. As the week progressed, officials continued to make it clear that a military response was coming, without the response actually coming.

Then, on Friday, the US hit eighty-five targets in Syria and Iraq that it said were connected to Iranian forces and proxy groups affiliated with that country. Biden put out a statement reiterating that while he doesn’t “seek” conflict, “if you harm an American, we will respond”—but, as Politico noted, he did not appear in person to explain the strikes. (“For a public perhaps bewildered about (1) the mission of the Americans who were killed in Jordan or (2) the ramifications of what is starting to look more like a multi-front war, Biden has had remarkably little to say,” Politico continued.) Administration officials did conduct an on-the-record call with reporters, who pressed for operational specifics. Yesterday, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, pulled (almost) a full Ginsburg to take questions from Sunday-show hosts. Asked repeatedly whether the administration was ruling out strikes inside Iran itself, Sullivan demurred. (“Sitting on a national TV program,” he told NBC, “I’m not going to rule in and rule out any activity anywhere.”)

If the administration was criticized, in some quarters, for a lack of transparency around the strikes, it was criticized in others—particularly on the right—for excessive transparency, at least ahead of time; the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal described the strikes, with more than a touch of hyperbole, as “one of the most advertised military attacks against an enemy in history.” This advertising, some analysts suggested, might have been the point, allowing Iran to move personnel out of harm’s way and thus dialing down the risk of further escalation; one observer told the BBC that the US seemed to be taking a “Goldilocks approach” that was neither too “hard” nor too “soft.” In any case, the strikes weren’t the end of the story—over the weekend, US forces twice hit targets associated with the Iran-linked Houthis in Yemen, and administration officials have suggested that further strikes are likely (even if, despite Sullivan’s refusal to be drawn, a direct attack on Iran looks highly unlikely, at least for now).

The strikes come amid increasingly widespread “fears”—in the classic passive-voice media parlance—of an all-out war in the Middle East, sparked by Hamas’s attack on Israel in early October and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of the territory. As is often the case at such moments of tension, some observers have questioned not only the transparency of the US government in its military maneuvers, but the US media’s own role in stoking war fever. Last week, the progressive news show Democracy Now! described the media as being partially behind a “drumbeat” demanding a military response to the Jordan attack. Spencer Ackerman, the author of the newsletter Forever Wars, wrote that major news organizations were even “helpfully offering options for what to bomb.” And such outlets, the media critic Dan Froomkin charged, “seem enlivened by the possibility” of a major regional conflagration, with reporters “basically braying for military solutions, willfully forgetting the lesson of Iraq (and Afghanistan and Vietnam) that US military intervention pretty much always makes things worse.”

As I’ve written on several occasions, leading voices within the US media industry have indeed beaten a martial rhythm in the past, be it helping an administration sell an overseas intervention (as in the case of Iraq) or scolding an administration for ending an overseas intervention (as in the case of Afghanistan). Even outside of such historic inflection points, hawkish punditry on cable news has been a routine sight over the years (who can forget Donald Trump “becoming president” by ordering a strike on Syria in 2017?), as have hawkish editorial stances from mainstream publications. (Last week, the editorial board of the Washington Post demanded “devastating retaliation” against the perpetrators of the attack in Jordan.) 

This is not to say that hawkishness has been the default setting of the entire US media landscape, or that hawkish punditry has always been instinctive or reckless. When Trump ordered the assassination of the senior Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, in 2020, citing flimsy claims of “imminent” attacks on Americans, various establishment media figures expressed skepticism; more broadly, ascendant voices within both the progressive and right-wing media spaces have challenged US military adventurism on ideological grounds. (When two Republican senators called on Biden to strike Iran last week, Tucker Carlson called them “fucking lunatics.”) This time around, too, the picture strikes me as at least somewhat nuanced. Asking questions about planned strikes isn’t the same as advocating them. Some otherwise hawkish observers (including the Post’s editorial board) have stopped short of calling for strikes inside Iran. 

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Indeed, generalizing about the coverage—as with any heavily covered story—is perilous. Still, much of it has struck me as being at least subtly rooted in the long-standing assumption that US military intervention in the Middle East is the natural way of the world, rather than a contestable, ongoing policy choice—even as the latter way of looking at things seems to be ascendant politically. At this pivotal moment for the region and America’s role within it, we need more big-picture coverage, grounded in historical context and willing to scrutinize the orthodoxy of the foreign-policy establishment. This would be difficult enough absent the fast-moving picture on the ground. But without shifting our perspective, that fast-moving picture won’t make sense. Eventually, incremental escalations can reach a tipping point that forces fresh perspective on us.

This is not to say, of course, that granular coverage of the incremental escalations isn’t needed—it very much is—or that no one is currently doing the bigger-picture work. Ackerman, for instance, described the current moment in the Middle East as the “Eighteenth Brumaire” of the war on terror (a reference to the Marx adage that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce) and situated it in recent historical context. “The War on Terror shows that as the US meets military frustration, the same bellicose voices in both our political parties, our Security State, and our press will expand their war aims rather than acknowledge checkmate,” he wrote. “Today it’s a call to strike targets inside Iran. Tomorrow it will be a call for regime change.”

There has been some compelling coverage, too, of the domestic political dynamics of this moment, with reporters exploring, for instance, Arab American voters’ anger at Biden’s approach toward Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the (in my view underappreciated) role that aversion to forever wars is playing in boosting Trump’s political appeal on the right. And yet in this arena, too, some of the coverage has been shallow: reduced to speculation about Biden’s poll numbers, or he-said-she-said partisan blamecasting, or supposed contrasts between Trump and his last standing rival, Nikki Haley, that fail to dig particularly deep into the substance of Haley’s hawkishness or the very hawkish aspects—not least the Syria strikes and the assassination of Suleimani—of Trump’s record, that belie the cliché of his isolationism. (Last week, some headlines uncritically echoed Trump’s claims that the Jordan attack was attributable to Biden’s “weakness and surrender” and would “NEVER have happened” on his watch—even though US positions in Iraq and Syria were attacked when Trump was president.)

At its best, the coverage of the past week or so managed to tie the ultimate, very concrete stakes here—the actual and potential loss of human life—to a more abstract opening of the imagination about the US role in the world; at its worst, it skated over the top of the former but below the latter, dwelling in a zone of abstraction but one tethered to conventional wisdom. There has, for sure, been some moving coverage of the soldiers killed in the Jordan attack. So far, at least, the possible civilian toll of the reprisal strikes has received comparatively little attention, at least that I’ve seen. The Biden administration has said that its targets “were carefully selected to avoid civilian casualties.” Iraqi officials and sources have countered that civilians were among the casualties, though at least one such claim seemed to involve some discrepancies. The picture remains murky. It is to be hoped that, in the coming days, and as the strikes continue, reporters work to elucidate it.

On Friday, toward the end of the press call that US officials organized to brief reporters on the Iraq and Syria strikes, a journalist from Al Jazeera asked about the US claims around civilian casualties, and whether the administration intended to share the “clear, irrefutable” evidence that it said linked the targets to the Jordan attack. A tense exchange ensued. When the reporter asked a lieutenant general on the call whether the government expected the American public to accept its word on the strikes, the lieutenant general replied, “Yes.” The reporter followed up: “Do you feel that the American military has a good track record when it comes to—.” A spokesperson cut in. “We’re going to move on to the next question,” he said.

Other notable stories:

  • Alex Thompson, of Axios, reports on Biden’s cable news diet, which apparently includes a heavy dose of the MSNBC show Morning Joe; per Thompson, Biden has been known to consult with the show’s stars and guest pundits and to discuss its coverage with his staff, who also watch along so as to “anticipate potential questions” from the president. In related news, Biden has declined to sit for the traditional presidential interview with the network hosting the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, turning down Fox last year and now CBS, despite having shown a greater willingness to engage with the latter network in the past. (“We hope viewers enjoy watching what they tuned in for,” a Biden spokesperson said—“the game.”) By contrast, Biden has accepted an invitation to speak to an audience of journalists at this year’s swanky Gridiron dinner next month.
  • In recent days, Tucker Carlson has been spotted in Moscow, stoking speculation that he will become the first Western journalist to interview Russian president Vladimir Putin since his decision to invade Ukraine two years ago. (Approached by the newspaper Izvestia, Carlson didn’t confirm the interview but didn’t deny it either.) Meanwhile, Russian police detained around twenty journalists, including from foreign news outlets, at a Saturday protest organized by the wives of military conscripts, though they were reportedly later released without charge. And a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported being able to access the websites of Russian state media from inside official European Union buildings—even though the sites are banned in the bloc.
  • The Guardian’s Chris McGreal reports on internal disquiet at CNN, where a number of journalists feel that the network’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza war has been skewed, in the words of one staffer, “by a systemic and institutional bias within the network toward Israel.” (A spokesperson for CNN rejected the claims of bias.) In related news, Hanno Hauenstein reports for The Intercept that an Israeli classified-ads operation owned by Axel Springer—the German media company that also publishes Politico and Business Insider in the US—has published real-estate listings for properties in Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are considered illegal under international law.
  • For The Guardian, Leyland Cecco spoke with Brandi Morin, an Indigenous journalist in Canada who was arrested and charged while covering a police operation to clear an encampment for unhoused Indigenous people in Edmonton last month. Local police said that Morin had been warned to move prior to her arrest and that officers facilitated media coverage of the operation at “a safe distance,” but various media outlets and free-expression advocates have suggested that the arrest may have violated Canadian law. (Morin still faces court proceedings that are scheduled to begin next week.)
  • And, in a column for the Lexington Herald Leader, John David Dyche—who wrote a biography of Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in 2009, but then disavowed him over his collaboration with Trump—explains why he passed on a national outlet’s request that he write an obituary of McConnell to be published on the latter’s death. “Fairness and good taste dictate that if I am going to say anything about McConnell for publication, I should say it while he is alive,” Dyche wrote. “Hence this piece.” 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.