After the President announced his intentions to seek approval from Congress for action against the Syrian government, cable news reacted with extreme disappointment. Evidently they had hoped for some juicy war images to keep viewers riveted to the television on this Labor Day weekend.
On MSNBC Saturday, Col. Jack Jacobs was absolutely shameful. It was painful to listen to him rant about what a mistake it was for the President to follow the Constitution and take this to Congress. A sign of weakness, he said. A gift to the Assad regime, propaganda fodder. He even went so far as to suggest that John Kerry and Chuck Hagel would resign because the President had somehow undermined them. His unspoken message to viewers was that a debate on action in Syria was a sign of weakness rather than strength.
The Sunday shows, with the one exception of Reliable Sources, were beating the war drums hard this morning in a punitive effort to undermine what should be viewed as a principled decision. ThinkProgress:
Though Kerry, who appeared on all five political programs, insisted that Obama’s decision would allow for the proper constitutional process and permit the administration “time to reach out to allies, friends around the world, build support on an international basis,” the hosts appeared to dismiss any need for Congressional deliberations or public debate about the administration’s evidence or the potential consequences of a military attack. NBC’s David Gregory, Fox’s Chris Wallace, CBS’s Major Garrett, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, and CNN’s Gloria Borger went beyond inquiring about the political timing of Obama’s decision to consult with Congress on Saturday. They repeatedly claimed that Obama’s decision to hold off on immediate military action emboldened America’s adversaries and undermined the nation’s “credibility”:
Over and over again. The transcript of This Week reads like a rant against a President for not unleashing death and destruction on Syria. Terry Moran laid the guilt on heavily and thick:
MORAN: Devastating, George. On Twitter and in public statements, leaders of that fractured opposition in Syria are expressing disappointment and disillusion with American leadership.
One of the leaders of one of those factions said the people of Syria are all alone now. They believe that the chemical weapons attack that they argue was carried out by Assad's regime has been carried out with impunity, and that the world is not ready to do anything.
Obama's leadership image in the Syrian opposition is probably at an all-time low right now, George.
Unsaid: The Syrian opposition is a loose coalition of various interests who are not necessarily allies of the United States. Also unspoken was any mention of the various players in the region using Syria's civil war as a proxy war for their own interests, including Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are in it purely to consolidate power in the region, but that goes unmentioned.
Anyone who paid even a little bit of attention to the media frenzy ahead of Iraq saw it again this past week. Granted, some of it was sparked by the White House and Department of State, but the media did not really approach it critically at all.
Less than six months ago, there was a collective reckoning of sorts by media over how they had mishandled the Iraq War. They confessed to a lack of skepticism and being caught up in the emotion of the moment, which is of course what the Bush administration hoped for. David Corn wrote an entire book about it, and cautioned that it could easily happen again. On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of that spectacular media failure, Corn said this:
“Nowadays when we look at small interventions, either through the drone war or Libya or possible attack on Iran or something in Syria, it doesn’t have as widespread a national debate attached to it and thus it might be easier for some sort of repeat to happen,” Corn said
“A re-run, in a different way, remains possible,” Corn added. “When you look at drones, we can’t have a strong public debate about it because a lot of it is classified. The government and people supporting the policy will say, ‘we know.’ In essence, you have to trust us.”
Yet. Now we have a situation where the President has clearly said we absolutely should have a robust public debate about Syria rather than rushing in like fools, and our media response is to parade the generals across the screen telling us how Assad is rejoicing and how our credibility is in the toilet.
This is not responsible press coverage, and Reliable Sources addressed it well. The transcript (courtesy of CNN) is below the fold, and represents possibly the only instance of anyone actually having a look at the nonsense spewed by those 'trusted names in news' with the benefit of history in the picture. I give CNN props. Since Howie Kurtz made his exit, Reliable Sources is actually looking like a legitimate media criticism show. I hope they keep up the good work.
STELTER: We keep hearing it on TV, and it's true. Syria is not Iraq. But it's understandable why the anticipated U.S. military action against Syria has reminded a lot of people of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq over a decade ago.
Back then, in that fear-stricken period right after 9/11, newspapers and television networks were criticized for all sorts of things, for going right along with the Bush administration, for failing to raise questions like what happens after the bombs fall, and for ignoring anti-war voices.
This time are we seeing more caution from the press? Joining me here around the table to discuss that is Michael Calderone, the senior media reporter for "The Huffington Post", Matt Lewis, a senior contributor to "The Daily Caller", and Laura Rozen, a foreign policy reporter for "Al-Monitor".
Thank you all for joining us. I appreciate it.
And, Michael, you've been writing and tweeting all week about the media coverage. Do you sense the shadow of Iraq looming overall of this?
MICHAEL CALDERONE, HUFFINGTON POST: Definitely. I think you see some lessons learned from Iraq and maybe some forgotten. You know, there has been some cover over the past week where it seemed very similar to pre-Iraq coverage in that you had the government basically disclosing bits of information. This is before the government's assessment on Friday.
And reporters running with these anonymous sources basically suggesting that the government is certain, without necessarily explaining why the government is certain. I think that's where coverage has been problematic.
At the same time, I've talked with several editors who say we're pushing our reporters to think about Iraq. Not that the two conflicts are the same. They're very different. But to think about when you're looking at the government's case, are you being skeptical enough? Are you getting a chance to personally scrutinize the information or have sources that scrutinize the information versus just what you're hearing in a background briefing?
STELTER: Right, right.
Matt, I thought you wrote a really interesting essay this week about how the media beats the drums any time there's a conflict. You suggested there's really a bias in favor of war among the media. Why is that? And what do you think that is?
MATT LEWIS, THE DAILY CALLER: What is deja vu in a perverse excitement. It reminds me living here in D.C. when a snowstorm is imminent and the meteorologists get giddy about it. And it's really bizarre and disturbing.
But look, Michael made a good point, I think, about print reporters getting it right and vetting and do a good job. But I think to me the story now is 24-hour cable, which I think as a medium is predisposed to beat the drums of war, even more than print. Because, you know, print is more about logic and I love TV, so I don't want to attack TV, but TV is about emotion, it's about graphics and imagery and theme music. And I think cable TV is where I've noticed more this time where it's really just like Iraq until what happened yesterday, of course.
STELTER: There was a change in the tone both in the media and in the administration.
Laura, do you agree there's that bias toward war in the press?
LAURA ROZEN, AL-MONITOR: I think it was stunning yesterday that you had, you know, all the media kind of going live to the White House Rose Garden, waiting for Obama's statement.
ROZEN: Breaking into sports coverage -- right, and the White House had to, when they saw that expectation building, the White House had to, you know, indicate that he wasn't going to be imminent action. You had Syrian state TV covering the speech live with translation because they're wondering when the missiles were going to strike.
So, the gap between expectations was stunning.
STELTER: And it still sort of is. We're seeing now the stories online and on television about what has changed. It seemed to me early in the week the media was expecting imminent action. And maybe that's because the administration was as well.
ROZEN: You're talking about the bias towards war. I think the administration has been building momentum for their case. Secretary of State Kerry made a very powerful speech Friday. You know, the world will judge us extraordinarily harshly if Assad gets away with it. So, they were making the case, they were selling it. Kerry is again on TV this morning selling the necessity for Congress to authorize this.
STELTER: Right, right. Michael, you pointed out you're hearing terms from an administration that we did hear before Iraq.
CALDERONE: Right. Is it a slam dunk going right back to the Bush administration and George Tenet giving his assurance to George Bush, is this a smoking gun. This came up in a "New York Times" story just this week. We're hearing the same metaphors and I think that's what be evoking this pre-Iraq sense of what's happening, even if the conflicts are quite different.
And I think the media needs to be careful in overusing these sort of terms. Even on today on "Meet the Press", I think John Kerry said he wants to take slam dunk out of the national security conversation. So, he's making his push. We'll see what the press does.
STELTER: We've seen a lot of anonymous sources and I wonder if there's any way around that. Because when readers and viewers hear anonymous sources, they're very skeptical. They wonder if they should trust the information. You'd been talking to some of these sources. Should we trust these anonymous sources we're hearing? Can they come on the record and talk?
ROZEN: You know, it's very interesting. Before the administration released this four-page declassified assessment of their intelligence, which is pretty detailed, the associated press had a story last week where they used slam dunk where they had anonymous intelligence officials telling them that Assad's inner circle having ordered the alleged chemical weapons attack was not a slam dunk.
So, "The A.P.'s" skepticism was quite clear but they were arguing against the case the administration wasn't making, which was that Syrian forces did it. It doesn't matter if Assad ordered it or not.
LEWIS: But, you know, the enabling that I think happens with especially cable TV, media, and the run-up, the skepticism sort of goes out the window. Everybody is sleep deprived. They're hungry for sources. They want to break news.
There's a conflict of interest. We like to -- you know, we like excitement. We like to imagery, and I think also the emotion.
Remember with the sarin gas attack or gas attack, use of chemical weapons. When you show imagery of people foaming at the mouth and suffering, Americans are compassionate. They will wants to get involved.
Now, the logic goes out the window, who did it, is there anything we can do about it almost doesn't matter. TV is an emotional medium. So I think with cable TV, there will be a push to war.
STELTER: Let me put up a tweet on the screen that I thought was really interesting a couple of days ago. The person wrote are progressive war critics, the folks who were right about Iraq, are they right about the war again? I've seen a lot of anti-war voices on television. Do you feel like both progressive and conservative libertarian anti-war voices are getting a fair shake?
LEWIS: Absolutely. You have Alan Grayson on one side and you have Rand Paul on the other. And I think that a big difference between this time and a decade go is you have more prominent anti-war voices. Like Rand Paul is now in the U.S. Senate. It didn't happen a decade ago.
But I almost -- I hate to beat a dead horse about beating drums, but it almost doesn't matter.
The talking heads can be saying that war is bad, but you've got the graphics. Crisis in Syria. You've got the theme music and you've got the B-roll footage of people suffering. The words that are said almost go out the window.
CALDERONE: I think that Twitter is playing a big role here.
STELTER: In amplifying these voices.
CALDERONE: Right. I mean, a lot of people speculated in 2003 if some of the critical skeptical reporting had gotten amplified, you know, how would that affected the rush to war? Articles in "Knight Ridder" and "McClatchy" who were critical article its before Iraq just don't get the play that "The New York Times" does or "The Washington Post" does.
So I think you're seeing a lot of different voices. Whether from members of Congress who are skeptical, whether from progressive activists, libertarian activists or, you know, reporting that is quite critical getting a little bit more play.
STELTER: You've been prolific on Twitter, Laura, I like how you've been responding to critics and responding to people and explaining what the administration is thinking on a one-to-one basis. It's pretty powerful.
ROZEN: It is extraordinary. You had, you know, people in Lebanon, people in Syria really bracing in the past day for imminent action, U.N. inspector --
STELTER: Right, their posts from Damascus --
ROZEN: Right. And you have pro and con. You were hoping for people who were afraid of it. Very few people knew what to expect. A lot of people don't understand that this is what Obama has been talking about is a limited action not to reverse Syria's civil war all by itself.
But two days of missile strikes, to punish and deter the use of chemical weapons. So, this is not about redoing Iraq, going in for ten years, but there's an extraordinary amount of debate really worldwide.
STELTER: Right. And it may end up going on for a month before anything happens.
Well, Laura, Matt, Michael, thank you all for joining us.