Toward the end of 2006, comedian Dennis Miller made these interesting comments regarding the upcoming 2008 presidential election:
“Let’s see, maybe it’s time for a Democratic president. Stay with me. Because the next step in the inevitable escalation in this war with radical Islam is going to involve us being appreciably more brutal and ruthless than we have been to date. And I think the left’s cronyism with the mainstream media will provide cover for someone on that side of things to up the ante.”
It was a thought-provoking statement that really caught my attention. Miller of course wasn’t endorsing a Democratic president, as some blog websites speculated at the time. He was making the point that a Democratic president would have an easier time prosecuting the War on Terror because the media would not plague the administration’s actions with the same intense scrutiny they gave to George W. Bush.
It appears that Miller is not only a brilliant political observer, but also a prophet.
By the time Bush left office, his post-9/11 foreign policy initiatives had been completely and utterly excoriated by the media. The mainstream media had invested years into building the narrative that everything Bush had done had only damaged our nation’s image and invited more violence upon our country. That theme resonated with our war-weary nation, and the Democratic candidate who most disassociated himself with those policies won the presidency.
But something interesting happened once that new president took office. Barack Obama, one of the most outspoken critics of everything Bush, continued on with many of those very same Bush policies. Even more interesting was that the media really didn’t seem to mind all that much.
The contrast in reactionary media analysis has been nothing short of remarkable.
Let’s look at some examples:
It’s hard to think about the Iraq War without thinking about Abu Ghraib. After all, the story of prisoner abuse committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 had a profound impact on our country’s mission in Iraq. The disturbing images of naked Iraqis forced into humiliating positions by smiling members of our military sparked waves of violence and served as a recruitment tool for the insurgent groups committed to keeping the country in a state of chaos.
The story of Abu Ghraib was featured more than 50 times on the front page of the New York Times. The national news networks followed suit, keeping the story in the news cycle for months while running the shocking photos over and over again for the world to see. Pundits enthusiastically pressed the notion that the soldiers’ actions weren’t acts of unsupervised insubordination, but were directly produced from the Bush administration’s prisoner detainment policies. Many called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and some were even suggesting that members of the Bush administration should be tried for war crimes.
One has to wonder how much better things might have turned out in Iraq had the atrocities not been so widely publicized and twisted into a representation of our presence in Iraq. One also has to wonder how the media would handle a similar story during the Obama presidency.
Well, it would probably come as a shock to most people, but a similar story actually DID take place during Obama’s administration.
In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine reported on a group of American soldiers who formulated and carried out a plan in 2010 to kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan. At least four victims were confirmed. After murdering the civilians, the soldiers posed for pictures with the corpses and even took body parts with them as souvenirs. The article alleged that the incidents were on the radar of Army senior leadership who were slow to react, and then engaged in a cover-up of the atrocities.
Now it seems to me that this should have AT LEAST been as big of a story as Abu Ghraib. After all, people were actually killed this time. But the vast majority of the American public has never heard of this. Why? The national media was largely disinterested. It was a one-day story, and not even a top story at that. This time, the press was content with simply reporting a few of the facts and letting the U.S. military deal with the situation internally. There was no media appetite to investigate and speculate further.
The Patriot Act
Does anyone else remember how controversial the Patriot Act used to be? I certainly recall Senator John Kerry and other 2004 presidential candidates repeatedly criticizing President Bush for its enactment. I also seem to remember it being critiqued regularly on the evening news. According to the Media Research Center, my memory did not fail me. The MRC reported that from 2001 to 2006, the Patriot Act was the focus of 91 network news stories on ABC, CBS, and NBC alone… and that didn’t even include their morning news broadcasts! 62% of those stories highlighted complaints or fears that the law infringed on the civil liberties of innocent Americans. New York Times columnists regularly expressed their contempt, and CBS News even ran the story of a poor Texas couple who claimed the Patriot Act ruined their marriage. Heck, I even remember the topic of The Patriot Act turning up on an episode of “The Practice”, with James Spader launching into a courtroom tirade over the gall of its existence.
When the Patriot Act came up for renewal during the Bush years, its content was routinely scrutinized by the media. Pundits would shake their heads in disgust after Bush would sign on the dotted line.
Whatever happened to the Patriot Act? Well, in May of this year, President Obama renewed it, and if you weren’t paying very close attention, you would have never known it happened. It was barely mentioned by the news media, with no critical analysis on the evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS, and NBC.
Oh Gitmo… What a hot topic you once were. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, established in 2002 by the Bush administration, took lumps from the media for years. Journalists regularly swooned to spokespeople from civil rights and human rights organizations, putting microphones in front of them, and letting them swing away with claims that the United States was breaking numerous laws as well as relinquishing our moral responsibilities and providing a recruiting tool for terrorist groups. Candidate Obama even made the closure of Gitmo one of the primary promises of his presidential campaign.
President Bush often stated in public appearances that his desire was to close Guantanamo Bay as well, but explained that there was no better alternative for dealing with such detainees. Besides, many of the prisoners’ home countries refused to take them into custody after they were captured on the battlefield, and other countries vowed to have the prisoners killed if returned to them. The media soundly rejected Bush’s logic.
Once elected, President Obama immediately announced plans to close Gitmo, but three years later it’s still open and serving the same purpose as it did during the Bush administration. Yet, we no longer hear media claims that the facility is a propaganda tool for terrorists. We no longer hear media concerns of prisoner abuse at Gitmo. The Obama administration is rarely even asked about the facility anymore.
When president Bush used unmanned drone missile attacks during his presidency, the media was critical of the collateral damage they caused. These days, the media largely loves the tactic, and regularly hails the Obama administration for its increased usage.
Remember how the media pressed the point for years that Saddam Hussein was not a threat to our nation, thus we should have never started a war in Iraq? Was Muammar Gaddafi a threat to our nation?
Compare media concern over the physical and psychological treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed with media concern over the actual killing of Osama Bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki. Tell me if you notice anything interesting.
Why doesn’t the media follow Cindy Sheehan anymore? And when’s the last time you saw someone from Code Pink being interviewed? We’re still at war, aren’t we? Why doesn’t the anti-war movement get any coverage these days?
Remember the NSA warrantless wire-tapping controversy? Why is it no longer a controversy? The NSA is still conducting warrantless wire-tapping after all.
Yep, Dennis Miller really hit the nail on the head that night. When media analysts and representatives from the Democratic party are asked to identify President Obama’s accomplishments during his first term, they all tend to point to his national security and foreign policies first. That just goes to show how instrumental the news media is in framing the national debate in this country. If you’re a Republican president, hawkish policies are a failure. If you’re a Democratic president, those same policies are at worst, not notable… and at best, worthy of praise.
And without media scrutiny to shape public perception, the president has the political capital to pursue those policies until they succeed.