American media loves war the same way that mothers love their children. At the end of the day, it’s why they get up in the morning. Sure, natural disasters, terrorist attacks (if they’re perpetrated by Muslims) and mass shootings (if they’re done by white people) get their ratings juices flowing, but nothing makes American media feel like American Media quite like a war. They get to put their Very Serious Faces on, look right in to the camera, and solemnly and poetically tell us about what poor populace we’re liberating now.
Last night was one of those nights, and these bombs, blood and oil salesmen read straight from the playbook that’s been sitting in front of them since the dawn of television.
For a president who is universally depicted as a man-child running around the West Wing with scissors, the word “surgical” sure came up a lot.
Tactical. Surgical. Precise.
The problem with the media is that most people reporting on this have little to no military background, so their sources can pretty much write their copy for them. Pundits assume that their viewers are a bunch of nitwits, and that's how we get some of the worst analogies ever devised.
Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast later said on that same network that the source he spoke to wasn't sure if there was going to be another strike, but hey, perpetual war's number one fans can't be bothered to stop and listen mid-cheer. Fareed Zakaria, who is usually on team sober and reasonable, took a hit of some potent war chronic, and regurgitated a line that has become something that the media openly pines for.
Luckily for Zakaria, repeating cable news' oldest President Trump shtick was overshadowed by Brian Williams, who won last night's Aaron Sorkin Award for sticking his nose furthest up his own asshole.
Michael Beschloss responded to the former newsman: “Very powerful videos. They certainly are intended, I assume, to get a lot of support for this action tonight…”
Oh really? What gave you that clue? The fact that no one really knows where this is going, what this is a part of, and that by warning the Russians (something we had to do, lest we add dead Russians to this quagmire), who warned the Syrians, we minimized the impact this strike could have? It's almost like this strike was designed entirely as a PR campaign—a military camPRaign—if you will. Trump wanted to prove that he's not Obama, demonstrated by this definitely not deliberately staged photo during the strike.
He also needed to change the news narrative. Remember, this man is driven by what he sees on cable. All he ever witnessed outside of Fox & Friends were stories about the Russian investigation, Susan Rice (and when you drill down into it, still looks really bad for Trump), and the failure of the AHCA. Trump began the week by touting his new infrastructure bill, which didn't do much to move the needle because cable news doesn't have time to cover little things like policy that can affect millions of lives—but when Trump starts bombing another country, that supersedes everything else. Starting a war is the easiest way for any president to knock anything out of the news cycle. Had Bill Clinton intervened in the 2nd Liberian Civil War in 1999, the Very Serious People would have forgotten Monica Lewinsky's name by the end of the week. It doesn't matter who is president—it could be Voldemort himself—the media will stop everything to line up behind the Dear Leader and proclaim his braveness in a contest to see who can appear the most solemn and self-righteous.
It's early, but The New York Times has jumped out to a lead in this department.
“News” and “Trump's Heart Came First” appear in the same sentence because irony has been dead so long that there's few records of it even existing. This article is full of haughty superfluosusness, and it touches on Trump's campaign rhetoric and previous opposition to Syrian intervention to maintain the facade of non-bias, but the final lines of the piece reveal the Times' true intent: to sell you war.
What is clear, however, is that Mr. Trump reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria. And that reaction propelled him into a sequence of actions that will change the course of his presidency. Mr. Trump's improvisational style has sometimes seemed ill suited to the gravity of his office. In this case, it helped lead him to make the gravest decision a commander-in-chief can make. “I now have responsibility, and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly, I will tell you that,” the president said of Syria on Wednesday. “It is now my responsibility.”
Given that Russia knew before Congress and the State Department did, this seems real organized, but yeah, conscience or something. I was out to dinner with my family when I first learned of the strikes, and when I got home, I decided to watch the news coverage for myself so I could get a feel for how our president sees things. I watched the broadcast about four hours after the campaign was first announced, and they were much more sober and rational than some of the earlier crap embedded above.
But they weren't entirely reasonable, as you can see the network's thirst for conflict behind Don Lemon's opening question to Fareed Zakaria.
Lemon: Russia has said that there's going to be a reaction, but we don't know what. How might they react?
Zakaria: Well I think Russia has said in effect 'we're going to provide a statement to react.' I don't think they're going to announce an action.
America warns Russia their soldiers will die if they stay in this air base that the recent chemical attacks were launched from. America bombs the base. Russians say they're preparing a statement and the networks
They teased the release of this statement with all the passion of Rachel Maddow holding a 1040 form in her hands. Russia announced that they were beefing up Syrian air defenses to “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities” and that “Washington's step will inflict major damage on U.S.-Russia ties.”
See how this is being depicted? Trump hits Syria in a strike that did have merit given its target, but nonetheless, is a pinprick in the larger quagmire—and now Russia is placed in an antagonizing position, and the media is essentially framing this as Trump picking his conscience over Russia. When Trump acts like an adult or does an adult thing not wholly incompetently, he couldn't ask for a better ally than the mainstream media.
Other than teasing breaking news and never even thinking to criticize the logic behind the strike, CNN did a pretty good job. Each member of their quadbox provided good context for what this means for relations with Russia, that “boots on the ground” can be a possibility thanks to our presence in Iraq, and how the Syrian government may be looking at this change in policy.
They weren't the worst of the night. In fact, they weren't even bad (on the whole, but it's Fox News, so those moments are unavoidable). Shepard Smith does a great job contextualizing the Syrian conflict here.
His in-studio guest was John Bussey, associate editor of the Wall Street Journal. Bussey did a decent job of filling in the gaps that Smith just presented, but his verbiage revealed the establishment mindset on this topic. As Bussey was paraphrasing how the Chinese view this attack (given that they have an eminently bombable country lead by a tyrant on their southern border), and at one point he said “this is cool.” People are dying. Cool.
He's not wrong. The Chinese government isn't really opposed to human suffering, but still—weird choice of words. To much of the media, war is a game to be analyzed like sports. Bussey also said that the “U.S. under Obama didn't respond militarily, it responded diplomatically.”
Um, what? In the last year of Barack Obama's presidency, he dropped 26,171 bombs across mostly Syria and Iraq. The asinine impulse on the right to label every Democratic candidate a wuss on foreign policy is exposed for all its absurdity by Obama's presidency that was defined by shadow wars across the globe. In 2016, U.S. Special Operators were deployed in 70% of the world, a 130% increase from Dubya.
That said, I'd still take either of them over this madness in a heartbeat. I know Shep, I miss him too.
Smith then took a shot at the White House for not having a satellite truck on the grounds, and getting the audio all screwed up when they uploaded the tape, so Trump's triumphant Presidential Moment was obscured by him sounding like Neil Goldman from Family Guy.
Dennis Ross, a former Obama and Clinton advisor, came on to break down the situation and show everyone what one of the purest versions of a Clintonesque neoliberal looks like. He said that this is a “clear” action even though we don't know what the fuck the plan is; and that there is a possibility for more cooperation with Sunni Arab states, because the worry before was that we'd position ourselves with Assad/Iran in the eyes of the populace, and didn't want to create a bigger mess than we already had. Now that the White House has been Trumped? YOLO.
The last line I hear before switching to the third and final network of the night was that all the newspapers in the world are apparently leading with this. Then Smith reads the Murdoch-owned British Sun newspaper's dramatic headline and nothing else. They move on to the next segment, and somewhere offscreen, Rupert Murdoch lowers the gun he had pointed at Shep's head.
The first thing I see after flipping over is someone arguing about how this violates UN law. If you're arguing that the UN has any moral ground to stand on when it comes to Syria, you should pay more attention to the UN. Good to see that everyone is staying on-brand tonight.
Luckily, our co-MVP of the night (with Shepard Smith) Chris Hayes, broke through some of the nonsense, saying “now we're on both sides of the conflict, at least.” There's a solid couple minutes of discussion about the complex set of alliances that we find ourselves in, then they cut to commercial…and Chris Matthews starts screaming at my face from a boxing gym talking about—you'll never guess—fighting. About politics. Frozen by fear and unable to change the channel, I just prayed that he'd keep his shirt on.
Back to Fox News
I land in the middle of a discussion about how Lindsey Graham and John McCain want Trump to take out Assad's air force—because why not egg on a man that you think is a toddler in Russian clothing to escalate a military conflict involving the Russians?
Back to MSNBC
Sarab al-Jijakli, a Syrian American community organizer, joins the panel and infuses the broadcast with a jolt of emotion, as he focuses on the party that all of cable news has avoided for the night: the Syrian Revolution. He highlights the fact that every time there is a ceasefire, protests emerge, and Assad's brutality has not put down a fervent spirit, despite his barbaric escalations. Chris Hayes came up with a good description of chemical weapons as having a “specific evil.”
MSNBC spent the rest of their time with me discussing the politics of the administration coupled with the policy of this strike without providing much of a larger context behind the policy that belied this strike. The mission that Trump authorized was first conceived in 2013. This decision wasn't made randomly, and this isn't the first time we've dropped bombs on Syria in this conflict. This is the core issue with all cable news: they live for elections and wars, and because they can't schedule wars, all narratives are built with an eye on the next presidential election. The existence of Chelsea Clinton as a main character in the news cycle proves this.
After nearly getting beaten to death with the words “limited” and “proportionate response,” I had enough of MSNBC and went back to CNN to close out the night, hoping for a reasonable panel.
Back to CNN
I am greeted with a triple box of Don Lemon and Wolf Blitzer flanking either side of Christiane Amanpour. My hopes have gone down quite a bit. Lemon read (Ivanka) Trump's statement about Donald's horror over the Syrian children, and then Amanpour said she observed Trump being shaken by this attack. I was about to tweet about how this message is being amplified by his administration AND the media, but then CNN cut to Nikki Haley pushing this same line at the UN. Then they cut back to Amanpour speaking in grave overtones about the president's feelings because now they're just pissing on irony's grave. In the hour of cable news that I watched, CNN carried more water for Trump than Fox News did.
Martha Raddatz said “as soon as he saw those pictures, as soon as he saw those images from that chemical attack, he wanted action. I think this is the single fastest punishing strike I have ever seen.”
And she's a real, sober journalist, yet even she cannot avoid the temptation to build a warrior narrative around the president. Some Never Trumpers proved that their opposition to our most unqualified president ever ends at the tip of a spear.
There is both a commercial and a tribal instinct at play here. War provides a moment of national unity rivaled only by the Olympics and World Cup, and they are all big-time TV events. War also cuts to the emotional heart of the media, reminding them that their work does have life and death consequences. However, it sure would be nice if they understood that fact every time they turn a mass shooter in to an overnight celebrity.
There is something in mankind’s DNA that attracts us to conflict. It’s us. It’s them. It’s simple. It’s primal. I just feels right on a very basic level.
Everyone knows that something must be done, and the entire world is basically turning their backs on Syria to face the United States and ask why we are not doing something. America is the world’s police partly because the world demands that we be.
So screw it. He gassed kids. We’re going to go blow some of his shit up. And you all can just sit here and watch. America. Fuck Yeah.
It is this instinct that television preys on. It latches on to our reptile brain and won’t let go until it’s squeezed all the anger and fear out of it. We could resist, but we largely don’t. Trump’s approval ratings will go up, chyrons filled with endless synonyms to war in Syria will draw in larger than usual TV ratings, and we will continue to fuel this vicious cycle. Albert Burneko over at Deadspin said it better than I could:
what underwrites the president’s practical authority to rain death on foreign soil without so much as a rubber-stamp vote from Congress is the impulse, on the part of both politicians and the media, to line up behind the president who does it, to make a show of unity, to lend him the gravitas of The Great War Chief. They all have their motivations, pretty much all of which are bottomlessly cynical but also sensitive to—and in thirsty pursuit of—popular will.
The reason capitalism is the most successful economic system to date is because everything is governed by the laws of supply and demand. There is no reason for politicians and the media to cheerlead war unless a market for it exists, and their energy to promote patriotic conflict is done in proportion to the demand for that message. We are part of the problem. But we can be part of the solution. We have a Senate and a House who have people that represent us and those people have phone numbers.
This is a wildly complex situation that we are wading into, and the only way we will be heard is if we reach out directly to our representatives so they can, you know, actually hear us. Don’t tweet. Don’t e-mail. Call. These people are old and the system is old; when they get flooded with calls, they can’t dial out. Call them. I sure will. I don’t necessarily oppose a strike like this, so long as it’s used to push the regime towards a diplomatic solution that finds some peaceful way to hand Syria over to its people. Violent coups typically result in the successor trying to match or exceed the brutality of his predecessor. Assad must go, but by the pen, not the sword—and I see no pens in this plan, so my representative will know that one of their voters is watching what they do in this very crucial moment.
Don’t let the media define how Trump’s wars get covered. Call your representatives, and not only can you affect actual policy, but they will inevitably let their friends on Trump’s television know that their thirstiness to sell us war propaganda is matched by an equally strong anti-war fervor.
Jacob Weindling is Paste’s business and media editor, as well as a staff writer for politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.