Five years ago, I wrote an article for Nieman Watchdog with the title, “Networks Should Replace Pentagon Cheerleaders with Independent Military Analysts.” Major media networks rely on retired colonels, generals, and admirals to give “unbiased” and “disinterested” commentary on military matters to the wider public. At the same time, many of these same retired military talking heads serve on boards for major defense contractors, a clear conflict of interest, as revealed most tellingly by David Barstow. I argued that media outlets need to develop their own, independent, commentators, ones that are not embedded with (or in bed with) the military and companies that profit from war.
In five years, I’ve witnessed no change to military coverage on TV and cable news. It’s wave-the-flag boosterism, pure and simple. The main problem with such uncritical coverage is that it keeps us in untenable (and unwinnable) wars. Consider the latest announcement from Afghanistan that American troops will remain in that country for another decade. Such an announcement is greeted with collective yawns by the U.S. media, even though a majority of Americans want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan now. After a dozen years of death and waste and corruption, who can blame them?
Critical documentaries have been made about the U.S. military and its wars, but they are consigned largely to leftist fringes and seen by audiences that need little convincing about the peril of war. To name just three, consider watching The Ground Truth (veterans’ perspectives from Iraq), Dirty Wars (based on the Jeremy Scahill book by the same title), and Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (currently streaming for free online). These documentaries give the lie to the idea that America’s wars are heroic and clean and necessary.
Nevertheless, a pervasive myth is the belief that the U.S. media is “liberal” and “anti-military.” In “Stop Blaming the Press,” journalist David Danelo (in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings from January 2008) recalled a comment made by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, in September 2006. Lauding Marine reporters, General Conway barked, “Maybe if we could get the rest of the media to do the job like you folks, we might have a chance of winning the war [in Iraq].” Stormy applause greeted this comment.
To his credit, Danelo defended the fairness of most U.S. media coverage, which drew strong dissents in the February 2008 issue of Proceedings. A Navy officer complained that Danelo failed “to level criticism at reporters for not doing their part to ensure victory.” Today’s press, this officer implied, neither supported American troops nor wanted America to succeed in its wars. Another officer, a retired Marine, wrote that “just one negative story” from an American journalist “bolsters our enemies’ confidence and resolve while equally destroying support from the public at home, thus eroding our servicemen’s and women’s resolve on the battlefield.” Refusing to suffer such journalistic “fools,” whose “stories could not have been more harmful than if al Qaeda had written them,” this officer demanded immediate military censorship of media working in-theater. Those journalists who refused to cooperate “would operate at their own risk and without military protection,” this retired Marine concluded ominously.
The idea that critical media coverage provides aid and comfort to the enemy is a commonplace. It serves to muzzle U.S. media watchdogs, ensuring that America will continue to unleash its dogs of wars across the world.
Sadly, the saying “The first casualty in war is truth” has never been more true. When our media coverage of wars is compromised, so too are our wars. And when our wars are fought for ill-conceived notions, so too will our media coverage be ill-conceived and notional.
As long as our nation keeps lying to itself in its wave-the-flag media coverage of war, our nation’s wars will persist.