Trump’s Syria Attack Sanctioned by the Media
Media critic Norman Solomon says US media’s uncritical coverage of Trump’s Syria attack is typical and has its roots in ratings spikes and in economic ties to the military-industrial complex
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Shortly after President Trump ordered 59 cruise missile strikes on the Syrian air base, U.S. media outlets fell all over themselves with praise for Trump’s action. Some called him presidential.
According to an analysis by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, five major U.S. newspapers — the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Daily News, ran a total of 18 op-ed articles in the days following the attack, and not one of them was critical of the attack, or even questioned the validity, the legality or even, for that matter, whether there was any proof of what they were accusing President Assad of doing.
A New York Times analysis even ran a headline that said: On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First. Similar coverage could be found in the cable news programs CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Brian Williams of MSNBC even referred to “the beauty of our weapons.”
Joining us to take a closer look at all of this and make sense of the coverage, or one-sided coverage, is Norman Solomon. Norman is co-founder of RootsAction.org, and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, and Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State.
Norman, good to have you with us.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: Norman, let’s begin by trying to unpack all of this madness. Give us a sense of why media seems to be so in sync with going to war.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, I think there are two huge factors. One of them is classic, and unfortunately has been in place for a number of decades. When the U.S. launches an attack, particularly a high technology missile sort of attack, like what happened the other day with what Trump ordered, the Tomahawk missiles against the Syrian air field, the U.S. media really love the pseudo-patriotism, the militarism, and the use of technology so that implicitly Americans don’t die, the target is presumably destroyed, or at least damaged, and that’s sort of a dream come true for what is seen to be optimum for U.S. military engagement.
So that has kicked in ever since really the response to the falsified Gulf of Tonkin events in August of 1964, in terms of the U.S. bombing Vietnam in supposed retaliation for a non-existent, supposed event. And then with the advent of cable television, which came into its own, particularly with the 1989 invasion of Panama, and then the Gulf War of 1991, which the sort of pyrotechnics video really hit its stride. This has been a forté of cable news in particular. There’s a spike in the ratings and, again, they glorify the use of technology.
That’s unfortunately classic. It’s what I call the repetition compulsion disorder of U.S. foreign policy to strike out against those designated as enemies with the news media cheerleading.
But in this case, there’s been a second major factor as well. And that is, for many months, the mass media establishment of this country, ironically with the exception of the Republican-aligned Fox News, has been hectoring, denouncing, goading President Trump to say that he must not say favorable things about the possibility of a rapprochement, or détente, with Russia. That, in fact, he must show that he’s not, in the inimitable phrase of Paul Krugman at the New York Times, that he’s not a Putin puppet. And that has been a drumbeat.
It’s come from the mass media. It’s come from some in the Republican Party, the ultra-hawks such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It’s come as a talking point for the leadership and others in Congress from the Democratic Party. The mass media has been demanding that Trump show he’s not a flunky of the Kremlin. And so, this was the second way in which the adulatory coverage of the missile strike was really sort of a celebration that this president was being brought to heel in effect by the military-industrial complex. He was doing what he should have done, which is to get tough, in this case, with the major Russian ally Syria.
So, on both counts it’s been a double-barreled sort of leap forward for what Martin Luther King Jr. called the madness of militarism, and among others, progressives need to look at how the vilification of Russia, that in so many cases they participated in, takes us down a road that could lead to nuclear annihilation.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And, Norman, one particular thing about this measure is that it had a very unifying effect both with the Democrats, with the Republicans, the splits in the Republican Party. People like McCain came together with Trump. So it was seen as also a very unifying act. Elaborate on that.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, it’s true. It was a unifying, sort of the opposite of Kumbaya. It’s, like, can’t we all agree that it’s time to step up the militarism of the U.S. government? Show it in terms of foreign policy? And it’s very ominous because it’s the step-up of a march towards a foreseeable extremely dangerous crisis with Russia. It’s a sort of a jingoism writ large in the sense that it has a tangible symbol, military action, those 59 or so Tomahawk missiles that were sent.
And the dangers are really profuse, not only in terms of what could happen internationally, but also U.S. domestic politics. That unity between the two parties and among the mass media has foreshadowed a tremendous carnage during the Vietnam War, during every major U.S. military war effort since.
And it’s really central to us who care about these issues, who understand that propaganda can have pernicious and deadly effects, that we step back. And then engage, see the big picture, and insist that when people from the grassroots lead, then, and only then, will official leaders follow in a way that makes sense for humanity.
SHARMINI PERIES: Yeah, and, Norman, give us a sense of what are some of the main rhetorical strategies that the media use in this case that one could hear and be able to say, “Well, there they go again.”
NORMAN SOLOMON: Yeah. Well, the rhetorical strategies really include designating through a drumbeat of media messaging, of political pronouncements who the enemy du jour, or of the year, or the era, really is. And, of course, we’ve, in our own lifetimes, gone through many of those. If we were around during the 1960s it was Ho Chi Minh. There was Manuel Noriega. There was Saddam Hussein. There was Slobodan Milosevic.
Many others who were designated as those who were the villains, the Hitlers, the whatever, of the day. Some of them, like Saddam Hussein, or, I would say, Slobodan Milosevic, to some degree, and also Assad in Syria, have done some terrible things.
The U.S. government has done some terrible things. For instance, in the Middle East currently, in supporting the slaughter of people in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. government, Uncle Sam has blood all over his hands on that ongoing slaughter.
So it’s the double standard that’s built into the technique, and then there is also the idea that’s come to the fore with what’s been called liberal interventionism, which is another form of a neo-con sort of aggressiveness, that, oh, we can’t just do nothing. And, of course, there, in fact, are a lot of options other than doing nothing, and adding to the slaughter. And this — we can’t just stand by and do nothing has really been a part of the refrain that we’ve gotten increasingly in recent months and weeks.
I think we need to recognize that these are classic techniques that rule out diplomatic initiatives, rule out working to arrive at negotiated settlements, that even the hawks acknowledge are the only way that we can actually go ahead and find a means to bring about peace in Syria. Otherwise it’s just more carnage on and on.
SHARMINI PERIES: Norman, another issue that has come up in this particular conflict is the issue of conflict of interest. Not only with the media promoting the war, but also with the pundits on some of these news outlets. The media watch group Media Matters, for example, pointed out that one of the main military pundits for Fox News is U.S. Army General Jack Keane. He’s on the board of directors of General Dynamics, which is one of the companies helped make the Tomahawk cruise missiles.
It is also said that Trump himself owns stock on Raytheon, another maker of cruise missiles. Is this what lies behind the confluence of war and mass media?
NORMAN SOLOMON: It’s one factor. I mean, there’s also the boost in ratings and so forth. There’s the nationalism that seems to come with the territory. There’s getting more favorable views in terms of regulatory decisions from the executive branch, from Congress, from the FTC. There’s a confluence, a constellation of ways, in which corporate media or corporate-funded media, which includes very war hawk, ultimately, coverage from NPR’s programs.
Like All Things Considered Morning Edition, or the PPS News Hour. This whole set of mass media are really positioned and oriented through the politics and the political economy to get behind warfare. It’s lucrative.
You know, this has been going on unfortunately, again, for a very long time. During the Vietnam War, there was a poster that the anti-war movement used sometimes. It said, “War is Profitable: Invest Your Son”. Now we would say “Invest Your Son and Daughter.” More recently in the decades that we are now still part of where cable television has been so important in driving the coverage and the politics of these wars, this has been classic.
You know, the New York Times, as I remember it was David Barstow, did a major exposé a number of years ago in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. How many of the pundits brought on the air by CNN, by Fox — it’s also now true of MSNBC — they have some sort of investment. Not only political investment, but sometimes, as you mentioned, direct financial investment in these war-selling corporations who are vendors for weaponry and so forth.
And the cash registers are ringing as they speak, and they’re helping that momentum to continue. So it’s both a literal problem and a metaphor for a much larger problem, which is that pundits and those in high positions through revolving doors and so forth are getting rich on the slaughter.
And that’s true also not only for the military-industrial complex but the military-industrial surveillance complex. For instance, the former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, who has been promoting the drone war, has a position on a corporation board that makes a lot of money off of the drone war. And he has gotten paid into the five figures in one year for that.
So it does bring fundamental questions about democracy: are we going to live in a warfare state? Well, we do. Are we going to challenge it? That remains to be seen. It’s certainly essential.
And, before I forget, I’d like to mention that many thousands of people in the last few days have sent constituent messages to their Senators and Members of Congress insisting that the United States turn away from the course of military confrontation with Russia, and turn towards détente.
And anybody who wants to, in two minutes, message their senators and representative on that point can go to our website and RootsAction.org, and you can take care of it very quickly.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Norman, as always, I thank you so much for joining us, and for the good work you’re doing.
NORMAN SOLOMON: Thank you, Sharmini.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.