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Bad Media! or: The Media Failed on Iraq...Again

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

Back in the fall of 2013, writing about America possible military intervention in Syria’s civil, I noticed something:

The media is incredibly pro-war.

More accurately, the media--particularly the political talk shows--tend to favor action (read: military intervention). Two weeks of Sunday talk shows about Bashar al Assad violating human rights/using chemical weapons were dominated by pro-war voices. (I hate using the phrase “the media” but I don’t really have a better option.)

Of course, last September, when ISIS continued to take territory in Iraq and beheaded two journalists, the whole chorus began again. Three distressing problems stood out...

1. Quantitatively, pro-war guests dominate the debate.

SInce the debate over war in Syria two years ago, I’ve wanted to track the Sunday talk shows and quantify--look at the baseline numbers, instead of using my gut--how biased the media actually is.

Fortunately for me, when the country debated intervening in Iraq last year, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting) did the work for me. Their key finding? “The study of key TV news discussion programs from September 7 through 21 reveals that guests who opposed war [in Iraq] were scarce.”

Analyzing three weeks worth of programs during the debate over another war in Iraq, “205 sources appeared on the programs discussing military options in Syria and Iraq. Just six of these guests, or 3 percent, voiced opposition to US military intervention. There were 125 guests (61 percent) who spoke in favor of US war.” Only one guest could be counted as anti-war.

To be fair--pun not intended--FAIR is a left-wing organization. But I doubt anyone who watches the Sunday talk shows regularly could disagree with their conclusions.

Frankly, it’s shocking how little debate there is. It’s almost like the inverse of how the media handles global warming. For years, newspaper articles and talk shows invited global warming skeptics and global warming scientists at a near fifty-fifty rate.

When it comes to war, almost no skeptical viewpoints are allowed...until the war turns into a quagmire.

2. The media is too dependent on official sources.

Not only are the guests on political talk shows supportive of war, they’re government officials who are supportive of war. Again, from FAIR:

“The guest lists for all the programs leaned heavily on politicians and military insiders. Current and former US government officials—politicians and White House officials—made up 37 percent of the guestlists. Current and former military officials accounted for 7 percent of sources.”

Nearly half of all guests were official sources. Most of the rest were reporters depend on official sources for their coverage. Why is this a problem? The Columbia Journalism Review explains:

“Lee Artz, who teaches communications at Purdue University, and the author of Public Media and Public Interest and Cultural Hegemony in the United States, said he sees these findings reflected in the constantly shifting narrative about the Islamic State. “The mainstream media in the US tends to accept uncritically whatever the US administration releases,” he says.”

Again, unlike virtually any other issue the mainstream media covers, when it comes to security and the military, they trust the military. Trusting the military is not their job. And it denies the government and military’s dodgy (at best) track record with the truth.

3. The televised media invited back the original Iraq war architects to discuss another war in Iraq.

Obviously, many media critics have made this point. The same neo-conservatives who pushed America into the original Iraq war are still being invited onto the Sunday talk shows as guests to discuss intervening in Iraq a second time. I could provide dozens of links to people making this point; I’ll just point you to The Colbert Report and what Jon Stewart calls “America’s tragedy herpe”.

Not only does the media invite John McCain and Lindsey Graham on to their shows to push military interventions--they favor intervention so much, I don’t even have to clarify which war--they invite them on more than any other politician or guest. Period.

Inviting Iraq war proponents on as guests proves that the media’s coverage is pro-war. Or at least, in an effort to avoid perceptions of bias, ends up biasing itself in pro-war/pro-intervention ways. This failure to provide even coverage also fails to educate the country about our military or foreign policy.

In closing, I haven’t suggested any solutions to the above problems. Good news: they’re coming on Wednesday.

five comments

I remember doing PT in 2013 when Syria was happening and the “red line” had been crossed. As you pointed out, the media blitz was on and it felt very reminiscent of 2002 and the debate about Iraq.

What I find interesting is the absolute restraint that was shown during that time. Chemicals weapons, red lines, and the media blitz – it felt like we were going to war, yet, we didn’t.

That’s all kind of been eroded now with more and more troop movements into Iraq to fight ISIS, which makes one wonder if going into Syria for the same is part of the plan.

Out of curiosity, which do you think more likely to be “fair and balanced”: privately owned news corporations dependent on sales and advertising revenue, or state-controlled outlets, or public television?

My personal view is that public television tends to be the least emotional, though lacks to resources to actually break news so is restricted to commentary. But I’ve never done any formal research on the matter.

@ F – I can answer that very quickly. “State owned” media companies, in America, are far better than the regular media. By that, I mean that NPR is far and away the best “mainstream media” option. (Pre-9/11, NPR had more foreign bureaus than any other outlet.)

And frankly, with how diverse their offerings are, I think they do better investigative work than most other outlets. (This American Life, which started out a show about personal stories, has done great investigative work over the last few years.)

My biggest concern is what media outlets choose to cover. NPR, PBS, don’t focus on the headlines, but on hard news that matters. Jobs reports, the Supreme court, international news. The major networks, MSNBC, they tend to focus on things that grab the headlines, and don’t leave one fully informed of all the day’s events.

Two other suggestions: The Economist and the New Yorker.

Basically, I like long-form investigative journalism, outside of the daily, short-term headline. Reading one New Yorker profile on a politician will inform someone much more than daily news blurbs.

And thanks for the question! Disucssing/debating/analyzing media is one of my favorite discussions…someday we’ll have a second blog, and this will be its topic.

This is good stuff – like what you guys do. Don’t always agree, but its good nonetheless. I was a warrior – multiple tours / theaters. Always been bugged by how the “official” view dominates all else. Rank still gets the microphone (and yes, actually, I was an officer and I am saying that) — and in the end the common view is lost in the noise. Some media types try and correct this —but it is a trait amongst the media (right, left and center) which is blatant and irresponsible. I think most warriors don’t care about persuading — and don’t care about the “politics” — but do care about explaining and discussing, but only with those who are interested in listening and not judging. So, we leave the discussion for our own “group”.