From Iraq to Ukraine, How Media Love War

Today's journalists are not speaking truth to power by covertly advocating for direct military intervention in Ukraine.

The United States commenced its air invasion of Iraq on this day in 2003, with the ground component following one day later. It was the beginning of a conflict that would last more than eight years, killing thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians as the US and its allies fought to destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime.

Nineteen years later, Americans are watching as a conflict engulfs Eastern Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin's large-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began last month, has resulted in numerous claims of civilian casualties and strikes on civilian areas.

The horrors of the Ukrainian conflict have prompted headlines similar to those seen during the Iraq War. However, there is a distinction between journalistic reporting on a conflict and coverage that is more activist in nature. During the Iraq War, reporters acting under the cover of objectivity often leaned toward the latter approach. As establishment media fight for more aggressive US action in Ukraine, it's important keeping an eye on these tried-and-true hawkish tendencies.

During a March 15 press conference, reporters peppered White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki with questions on the Biden administration's reluctance to some military aid to Ukraine. There were more than a dozen questions on military support, including five unique mentions of a no-fly zone, but only one about the potential American role in encouraging negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

Neither were the numerous queries about military assistance based only on facts. "Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian authorities have stated unequivocally that they believe the most pressing requirement is for more warplanes and fighter jets. So, why is the United States assessing anything different?" inquired a reporter "Why does the United States feel it knows better than Ukrainian officials what Ukraine requires?"

Indeed, journalists have embraced a hawkish stance in both old-guard media institutions and press conferences. This week, Substack blogger Adam Johnson published an essay titled "Attacking Democrats From the Right: The Faux Adversarial Sweet Spot for U.S. Journalists," in which he collated multiple recent examples of the conflict-hungry press. Among them: NBC News' Richard Engel, who called the Afghanistan withdrawal the "worst capitulation of Western values in our lifetimes"; CNN's Jim Sciutto, who asked a State Department spokesperson why the US wouldn't "shoot down the [Russian] planes that are bombing hospitals"; and The New York Times' Peter Baker, who used a comment from a Raytheon board member as an example of someone opposing the Afghanistan withdrawal and later lamented that "

As this week's Ukraine briefing demonstrates, these inclinations unavoidably taint mainstream coverage of conflicts, the public mood it elicits, and the queries directed toward press representatives in the highest political settings. "It's a time for challenging questions, Peabody-baiting TV coverage, mugging about innocent life, and the need to 'act' 'immediately' to 'defend civilians,'" Johnson says, "all of which just happens to coincide with the forces of increasing militarism."

During the Iraq War, the hawkish press had a crucial influence in moulding public opinion, with reporters assisting to strengthen government justifications for the war. There were few and far between opposing viewpoints. As The Atlantic's Cullen Murphy wrote in 2018, the Iraq-era press "had been too sluggish to subject government statements to scrutiny—indeed, it had magnified official evaluations in advance of the war and given them legitimacy." Judith Miller of the New York Times and other establishment journalists spread misleading information about Saddam Hussein's administration, including claims that it possessed weapons of mass devastation. (Miller, for her part, later published a book in which she defended the mistakes she made in her reporting, saying they were "not because I lacked skepticism or because senior authorities spoon-fed me a line."

The Iraq War was obviously a different fight than Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the United States currently plays a different role than it did before. The United States is not directly participating in the conflict in Ukraine, and there are no American boots on the ground in the same way that there were in Iraq. Much of the reporting during the Iraq war focussed on a politically and publically sanctioned conflict. In some ways, this makes an activist press particularly relevant amid the current war. In general, current journalists' questions have coincided with a course of growing militarization that the American public does not want when it comes to Ukraine.

Members of the establishment press, sitting in "the fake adversarial sweet spot," are pushing back on what the American public has mostly rejected. A CBS News/YouGov poll asked respondents what they thought of a no-fly zone "if it's considered as an act of war"—which it would have to be in the Ukraine-Russia conflict—and 62 percent said no. For good reason, the Biden administration has ruled it out as a component of the American response.

The American press is not speaking truth to power by advocating for direct military intervention in Ukraine—an notion that both the authority and the people it governs have rejected. It's also not being instructive by requesting the same war-related information on the self-avowed "168th" occasion.

The establishment media and the journalists who write for them are not only to blame for the disastrous Iraq War. War is fought by governments, not by journalists. But they are entirely to responsible for uncritically perpetuating half-truths and government narratives when balanced coverage would have made restraint a more publically desired strategy. They're now playing a hawkish role in America's reaction to the conflict in Ukraine, and they're demonstrating troubling conduct in public: in the name of balanced national security coverage, they're viciously hounding officials who dare to warn against the perils of intervention.

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