The Media War Machine and the Current Thing
Over and over, a hawkish press has led America's charge into disaster by manufacturing frivolous conformism on war.
A press that manufactures consent for war is almost as old as war itself. William Randolph Hearst, who sold newspapers that fanned the flames of war with Spain in 1898, is an American example of this tendency. Yet the specific tone of media actors who seek U.S. intervention in international conflicts has undergone a shift in recent decades.
Today’s geopolitical events are presented as cinematic narratives akin to Marvel’s Avengers, allowing the press to drum up support for interventionism with lightning speed. U.S. involvement is framed with an image of Anglo-American exceptionalism where liberal states serve as a type of moral arbiter for the planet. This obfuscates the realities of the military-industrial-media complex and, more importantly, presents the public with a self-flattering conception of their own moral destiny that overrides sound foreign policy.
The press is currently bombarding us with such content about the Russo-Ukrainian War, which is, for now, “The Current Thing”—that thing to which we must devote all our attention and energy. Thus, understanding how the consensus-making machine has worked in the past can equip us to see through and resist its machinations.
One example of a relatively recent hip media spectacle designed to create frivolous conformism about world issues was the “Band Aid” multi-artist compilation album and related concerts, which raised money for Ethiopian famine relief in 1984. Although not advocating for direct intervention in Ethiopia’s woes, the flagship song, “Do They Even Know Its Christmas?” was especially sanctimonious and condescending as Ethiopia has been an officially Christian country since the 4th century.
The success of this event augured things to come, particularly regarding the leveraging of star power and popular culture to weave narratives about issues of which the average citizen has little knowledge.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War disaster, a conflict that much of the media failed to critically interrogate beforehand, a flagging appetite for war led to a pivot toward the aesthetic of youth activism, which still served supporters of U.S. military expansionism. Slogans such as “Save Darfur” and “Free Tibet” created ripples and coincided with movies like “Tears of the Sun” and “Blood Diamond,” which depicted an African continent clearly in need of saving. The situation was primed for a new social media-NGO campaign to bring these themes of infotainment together once the technology was in place. Enter “Kony 2012.”
“Kony 2012” was an attempt to “create awareness” regarding the human rights abuses of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warlord Joseph Kony. The campaign merged celebrity activism, student politics, and news media coverage into one slick package. A viral video took the world by storm, leading to more coverage of the LRA and its depredations. Thankfully, with that coverage came more criticism, particularly about the oversimplification of the conflicts in Central Africa by such campaigns. “Kony 2012” eventually sputtered out with its front man, Jason Russell, an American film and theater director, flaming out in a naked public meltdown.
The Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011, offered us another taste of this kind of narrative control, encapsulated in the battle cries to “do something” by pro-interventionist forces. Once the lies about “moderate rebels”—who were actually dangerous extremists—became untenable, the media switched to isolated stories of human interest designed to tug at heartstrings. The drowning of toddler Alan Kurdi during a Mediterranean crossing was held up as an emblematic tragedy—until the child’s aunt started implying that Western nations were partially responsible for the war. The quest for more context-free tales would jump from example to example, eventually culminating in the death of “the beloved clown of Aleppo.”
The one time the U.S. did decide to launch airstrikes directly against the forces of Damascus was in response to the Douma chemical attacks of 2018. Most of the legacy press and cable news, usually so critical of then-President Donald Trump, united to sing his praises for the action. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria even stated that at that moment, Trump “became the President of the United States.” Yet once it became obvious that no further escalation would occur, much of the media lost interest.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a throng of hawkish commentary has flooded the airwaves, heavily skewed once again toward mobilizing mass activism and popular support. Press interrogations of President Joe Biden imply that he is coming up short and rarely question Ukraine’s relevance to overall U.S. defense posture or the dangers of walking into dramatic escalation over a non-allied state.
There are two strange assumptions of Anglo-American hubris at play. The first is that U.S. interventionism has increased human security and the American interest. But it hasn’t. Post-9/11 wars have had a human cost just shy of a million people, according to the Watson Institute’s Costs of War Project. Such consequences are rarely discussed in detail by the media. Indeed, post-intervention conditions often deteriorate to the point where further interventions are later advocated for on humanitarian grounds, as if the first did not occur.
The other assumption is that the United States is the moral arbiter of world affairs rather than simply a powerful state. That thinking is a type of intoxicant that centers the media—both celebrities and journalists—and the rest of us as the protagonists of a grand teleological narrative where the very act of intervening can only produce positive results for the intervener. Of course, that means failure to “do something” questions the core values of the state and media apparatus.
The danger of The Current Thing in Ukraine is that it is pushing an already deeply involved U.S. to be even more hawkish toward a nuclear power while muddying the relationship between the media and the defense industry with simplistic narratives of good versus evil. All this should concern those who seek to offer foreign policy alternatives to the flailing bipartisan order that has gotten its way on most interventions in the past with disastrous results.