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"Truth is always secondary to the spectacle": a media critic on how we cover war

Why the press consistently covers war uncritically.

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“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean … I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”

These words were uttered by MSNBC anchor Brian Williams on Thursday night. Williams, who was suspended two years ago for lying on air about being shot down in Iraq, was describing the recent missile strikes in Syria.

“They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,” he added against the backdrop of Pentagon footage.

Williams’s remarks, while uncommonly inane, are not that surprising. Media coverage of war — and wartime presidents — is generally favorable. Fareed Zakaria, a widely respected CNN anchor, said immediately after the Syria strikes: “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” Zakaria remained critical of Trump’s broader foreign policy, but, like many in the press, he regarded Trump’s actions in Syria as a return to normalcy.

The response to the Syria attack is a reminder that presidents can usually expect uncritical coverage when they deploy force. At some point, it became “decisive” and “presidential” to bomb things. Or, as Bill Maher put it, “In America, you’re not really president until you bomb something.”

Was this always the case? Or is this a relatively new media phenomenon?

In this interview, I talk to Eric Alterman, a journalism professor at CUNY and “The Liberal Media” columnist for the Nation. Alterman is a longtime media critic and the author of ten books, including What Liberal Media: The Truth About Bias and the News. Here, we talk about the media’s (mostly uncritical) coverage of Trump’s Syria strike, why our obsession with spectacle is so dangerous, and what Trump really means when he says the media is “the enemy of the people.”

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing

You’ve been a media critic for a long time. What’s your initial reaction to the recent coverage of the Syria strikes?

Eric Alterman

It's 100 percent predictable. We've been in this movie before, and this is what happens when an American president bombs another country — for any reason. The archetype is January 17, 1991, the night that George H.W. Bush bombed Baghdad. That was the first time that a bombing raid was covered live on television. It was the first time we saw war in real-time. We didn't really see war, though, we just saw the explosions in the air. It absolutely mesmerized audiences.

Sean Illing

What do you most remember about that night?

Eric Alterman

What I remember about that night, in addition to the "beauty" of the explosions, to borrow from Brian Williams, and the lack of concern with the consequences on the ground, was that the bombings were immediately received as an enormous success, and everyone who had opposed the idea were suddenly asked to apologize for their opposition. And yet we knew nothing about the effects of the bombings. But the media coverage of the war, because it had become a cable news program, was all about the spectacle of now.

To even raise a question as to how is this a good thing? How can this loss of life, at this enormous expense and this increased complication with other nations, further our interests? Perhaps there were good answers to the questions, but the point is that the questions weren't asked.

If you raised those questions, you were considered unpatriotic. Everybody has an incentive to get on board, and there's no incentive not to get on board. Bombing countries is, evidently, something presidents are supposed to do, and this is what you hear time and time again after force is used in this way.

Sean Illing

You raise an important point about the “spectacle of now.” There’s a moral nihilism lurking behind cable news: They cover war the same way they cover any disaster — it’s just a show. The suffering is part of the spectacle, but the sufferers are just characters in the show. It’s about ratings, not people.

Eric Alterman

Absolutely. Nobody was watching CNN before 1991 — they were in a total dead zone. The war gave them a big bump in ratings. And then they went back to nothing, to covering shark attacks and blonde girls gone missing. They quickly realized, with the help of advertisers, that the real money, the real show, was in war and disaster and drama.

War coverage is an exercise in flag-waving. Trump's administration doesn't even have a coherent narrative about why they did this and what it will accomplish. They knew they didn't need one. He did what presidents are supposed to do, and the media (much of it, at least) applauded him.

Sean Illing

It’s always been this way, no?

Eric Alterman

Every president can depend on uncritical coverage any time war breaks out. I wrote my dissertation in a book called When Presidents Lie that focuses on The Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and if you look and read the coverage of the attack, which in fact never occurred, it's extraordinarily vivid in its recreation of a battle that never happened — replete with heroism and drama. War is sold uncritically as a dramatic story.

Sean Illing

Trump, perhaps more than anyone, understood the optics here.

Eric Alterman

We know that wars tend to be popular so long as they tend to be successful. In this sense, Trump's marketing genius was at work. This war happened, and it was over. Bombing a country is an act of war. But because it's not necessarily going to embroil us in a broader commitment, everybody's okay with it. It's a big publicity win for him.

Trump is all about his reviews. For the first time, he's gotten really good reviews, which is terrifying. Syria is containable; North Korea is not. If the lesson he draws from this is that military strikes are good for ratings, what will he do next? So the media, in addition to not providing people with the information they need, are playing a very dangerous game with this president.

Sean Illing

On the media’s hierarchy of priorities, then, truth is far less important than imagery and narrative?

Eric Alterman

With the media, truth is always secondary to the spectacle. But you have to define what you mean by "truth." I think truth, for the media, is something they can't be easily embarrassed by if it's quickly disproven. If a thing is disproved way down the road after everyone initially bought it, that's fine — there's no real price to pay for that because it's been forgotten. It's the statements or claims that are immediately disproved that really hurt — that's what has to be avoided.

Take the story of Jessica Lynch, who became a heroine of the Iraq War. We found out months later that nothing matched the narrative that was created. It was pure bullshit. But the story served its purpose in creating a narrative that everyone was comfortable with at the time. No one paid a price for getting that wrong, for not really digging into the details.

Sean Illing

This part of Trump’s mad genius, I think. He understands the media better than the media itself, and he exploits the incentive structure as skillfully as anyone I’ve seen.

Eric Alterman

I agree. Trump is a genius, which is different from being smart. He has this innate genius for exploiting the weaknesses of the media, just as Joseph McCarthy did before him. And the media is nearly helpless to fight back.

Sean Illing

I see no reason to believe that the media can overcome these structural weaknesses. Do you?

Eric Alterman

Trump says the media are the enemy of the American people, and what he means is this: The American people want to be able to believe what I tell them. The media, in turn, feels like they have to represent all of the American people, and they're willing to do so even at the cost of reporting untruth.

So take Jeff Zucker's recent comments. He runs CNN and he put it quite well. When asked why he includes people like Trump apologist Jeffrey Lord on panels, he says he sees these people as "characters in a drama" who need representation. It doesn't matter if what Lord says is true, just as it doesn't matter if Corey Lewandowski was both a CNN analyst and Trump campaign shill at the same time. These people are characters in a story, and CNN's job is to represent these narrative points of view.

The truth has nothing to do with it.

Sean Illing

Should the media own its responsibility to be “enemies of the people” in the sense that Trump means it?

Eric Alterman

Again, when Trump says the media is the enemy, what he's saying is that people want to believe whatever he tells them. The media ought to be the enemy of those people, because Trump is lying to them, and those people are supporting policies that are destructive not only to the country but to themselves as well.

But the media aren't comfortable in this role; it's just not how they think of themselves.