In 2003, the United States launched an invasion of Iraq based on government lies, fueled by eager media personalities who were far too willing to parrot what officials were telling them.
It wasn’t just that they valued access and were buddies with their sources. There was also too often a mainstream willingness to accept that showing strength and power was important for a country like America, and the best way to do that was to go win a war.
Of course, things didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t quick. We weren’t greeted as liberators. And there was no “mission accomplished,” as President George W. Bush so famously, and prematurely, declared in June 2003.
Plenty has changed since then. There’s far more questioning, on both sides of the aisle, about whether the United States needs to jump in and fix all the world’s problems with boots on the ground.
But some things remain, such as the media’s tendency to embrace their hawkish side. And it’s been creeping into the coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some high-profile media figures have pushed bellicose, and even reckless, rhetoric over the past week, suggesting to varying degrees that America should take steps that would almost inevitably lead to war with Russia.
NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel suggested that by not attacking a massive Russian convoy of tanks and armored vehicles outside Ukraine’s capital, the United States and other countries were watching “in silence.”
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and MSNBC contributor similarly tweeted that more needed to be done about the massive Russian convoy outside Ukraine’s capital ― and called doubts about more intervention “handwringing.”
And Fox News host Sean Hannity simply said, “Why isn’t there some group ― nobody has to take credit for it ― I believe in covert operations and plausible deniability. They’re sitting ducks. Why don’t we take out that convoy?”
On Monday, a New York Post editorial headline read, “West Must Consider Intervening to Stop a Slaughter in Ukraine.”
To be clear, the Ukraine crisis is very different from Iraq. The United States is not the primary aggressor. But America’s mistakes in 2003 have hung over the U.S. response to Ukraine.
Last month, as President Joe Biden’s administration was warning the world its intelligence showed that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine, officials repeatedly had to assure reporters and the international community that its intelligence could be trusted ― unlike in 2003.
“Now, I am mindful that some have called into question our information, recalling previous instances where intelligence ultimately did not bear out,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the U.N. Security Council in February. “But let me be clear: I am here today not to start a war, but to prevent one. The information I’ve presented here is validated by what we’ve seen unfolding in plain sight before our eyes for months.”
And indeed, the Biden administration’s intelligence ended up being right on point, exposing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans and showing the world clearly what he was up to. It didn’t stop Putin, but it denied him the element of surprise and gave other countries more time to prepare a unified response.
“Sadly we’re seeing so many of the same mistakes we always see in the media during wars.”
Biden has repeatedly said he is dead set against sending U.S. troops into Ukraine to fight Russia, another nuclear power.
“That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another,” he told NBC News in an interview.
He reiterated that message in his State of the Union address Tuesday: “Let me be clear: Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.”
That rhetoric left some media personalities wanting ― or at least wondering why he didn’t provide ― more aggressive rhetoric.
NBC host Chuck Todd thought Biden should’ve turned it into a wartime speech, wondering why he didn’t devote significantly more time to talking about the European crisis ― despite all the economic and other issues that America has to deal with at home. (For the record, Biden led his remarks with Ukraine and spent about 12 minutes on the topic in a speech that lasted just over an hour.)
Todd said he thought Biden would “spend a little more time explaining why it is our fight, as you said, ‘good versus evil,’ explain a little bit more and a little bit of the history of the defense of Europe, and why we’re in this position.”
“Sadly we’re seeing so many of the same mistakes we always see in the media during wars,” said Stephen Miles, president of Win Without War, a network of activists and organizations. “Focusing on the leaders directing the violence instead of those suffering from it, false choices between doing nothing and the U.S. going to war, and focusing more on troop movements and airstrikes than the causes of conflicts and how we might build a lasting peace. We desperately need the media to do better.”
There has also been plenty of racism in the Ukraine coverage, with a media industry ― still very white ― expressing more sympathy for what Ukrainians are going through because they look like them.
“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed,” Al-Jazeera English anchor Peter Dobbie said. “These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East... or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”
“This isn’t a place ― with all due respect ― like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European... city where you wouldn’t expect that,” CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said in another example of media bias.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association put out a statement recently condemning the “orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.”
Despite some of these discouraging tendencies by some members of the media, the environment is very different from what it was in 2003. It’s much more diffuse, and troubling comments ― whether ones that make light of getting U.S. troops involved in a wider conflict or racist characterizations ― have been quickly called out on social media.
On Tuesday morning, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul ― who is a frequent presence on MSNBC ― played into the good vs. evil frame, tweeting that there are no more “innocent” or “neutral” Russians now.
“Everyone has to make a choice — support or oppose this war,” McFaul wrote. “The only way to end this war is if 100,000s, not thousands, protest against this senseless war. Putin can’t arrest you all!”
In other words, you’re either with us or against us.
McFaul later deleted that tweet after receiving heavy criticism.
Without sending troops to Ukraine, the international community has to rely on economic aid and sanctions. The United States and other European countries have been giving significant military and financial assistance to Ukraine while imposing crippling sanctions on the Russian economy.
There seems to be widespread support for Biden’s policies on Ukraine, including economic sanctions on Russia and Putin, aid to Ukraine and troop assistance for NATO allies. But 82% of respondents in a recent CBS News/YouGov poll said they were at least somewhat concerned about the crisis in Ukraine becoming a wider war in Europe, and 71% said they do not want the United States to send troops to fight Russia.