The mainstream media’s attempts to cover the recent Syria and Afghanistan offensives prove how easy it is — even for the most renowned journalists — to emphasize the wrong narratives.
Just ask CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and MSNBC’s Brian Williams. Zakaria said that the night President Trump ordered the strike on Syrian airfields was the moment he “became president of the United States.”
Williams gawked at the “beautiful pictures” of the missiles soaring in the sky, quoting a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” – which Cohen once described as a “terrorist song” – “I’m guided by the beauty of the weapons.”
Coverage like this struck many in the media and media-adjacent fields as odd.
“We have an inherent bias in our coverage, in our policymaking environment, that action is presidential and inaction is not, instead of proper response is presidential,” said Sean Aday, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in an interview with MediaFile.
“Isn’t it telling that we consider bombing somebody presidential?” Aday continued. “And [former President Barack] Obama was not presidential because he didn’t bomb? There might be perfectly legitimate reasons to believe that bombing this time was a good idea and bombing last time was a bad idea, but that’s not what people are saying.”
Washington Examiner national security reporter Jamie McIntyre, in an interview with MediaFile, decried the “breathless quality” of how the mainstream media handled the Syria strike, saying that “a lot of people missed the nuance of what was going on in that strike.”
He expressed frustration with the media narrative that the strike was a knee-jerk reaction to harrowing images and videos of a chemical weapons attack, allegedly perpetrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against his own people a few days earlier.
“Trump said it was about the babies,” McIntyre said. “But the options drew up by the Pentagon for him were not about the deaths of babies. It was about the use of chemical weapons.”
“The Pentagon drew up a very proportional option for the president to use, designed to warn Bashar al-Assad about the use of chemical weapons, and that’s as far as it went,” he continued. “It wasn’t about getting more involved in Syria. The Pentagon was trying to explain this, but it didn’t seem like anyone was listening.”
Both Aday and McIntyre mentioned that the one aspect of the Syria narrative that the mainstream media had nailed was the contrast between Obama being stonewalled by Congress on this issue in 2013 and Trump’s move to order the strike without congressional approval.
That said, Aday does not believe the media’s coverage of this event had anything to do with who was in office.
“It’s not clear what would’ve happened if Hillary Clinton had done it, but I have a feeling media coverage would have been generally pretty supportive unless there was strong partisan disagreement,” he said.
On the subject of the Afghanistan bombing, which was nicknamed “the mother of all bombs” by the military, McIntyre said some of his sources at the Pentagon were surprised by the media focusing on the size of the bomb. To them, it was just a “weapons choice.”
McIntyre thinks the media “missed the story” on the Afghanistan bombing, which was mostly portrayed as Trump keeping his promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS.
“A lot of people saw it as that’s what he said, that’s what he did, campaign promise kept,” he said. “But the reality is that President Trump hasn’t granted any new authority to generals in Afghanistan. This particular bomb … was brought into theater well before Trump was president and dropped under authority granted by Obama.”
“The narrative that there is a new sheriff in town or this wouldn’t have happened under the Obama administration was a false narrative,” McIntyre added.
Aday lamented the “lack of restraint” employed by the mainstream media during these national security incidents, particularly the Syria strike. In his estimation, there was plenty of news coverage, but not enough parsing of what it all meant.
“[What was missing was] any strategic analysis of what this will accomplish, what it will do to further the U.S.’ strategic goals and what can go wrong because of this, and what is the administration’s plan for dealing with those contingencies,” he said.
Eventually, according to Aday, the Sunday talk shows went into the substantive analysis he wanted to see. But that was four days after the strike, and most of the public had already moved on to other news.
“But that’s not what we got in the immediate aftermath [of the strike],” he said. “And when do most people pay attention? Most people were paying attention that night. They were not watching the Sunday shows.”
McIntyre said he would rather the mainstream media wait for more facts to come out about events like these before they start dissecting the situation, but he recognizes that might not be possible in the age of 24/7 news.
“There are better ways to do it,” he said. “I’m just not sure they’d work in this news environment.”