Trump, the Media, and War Coverage
By Andrew Freese
Ever since President Trump has assumed office, it has seemed like virtually every other major institution in our country has been working round the clock against him. As a result, most of his domestic policy goals have been thwarted. The only major legislation he has passed is a tax cut, and his attempts at both immigration and health care reform have crashed and burned in Congress. However, through all of this Trump has been able to use the power of the Executive to alter American foreign policy completely. This is the culmination of over 70 years of Congress ceding responsibility for the management of foreign policy to the President under the auspices of preserving national security under the assumption that someone like Donald Trump could never possibly be elected president. They assumed that whoever was in the position of president would reliably promote America’s interest in a rationalistic and pragmatic way, and ensure continuity of policy for the various special interests involved.
Now that we find ourselves in a new foreign policy paradigm with a president implementing a sort of mish mash of new foreign policy initiatives, some of which are in line with the established doctrine and some of which aren’t it has been interesting to watch the media reaction. In terms of domestic policy and politics I would say the overall media reaction has been typical and predictable. Fox News reliably defends Trump, and MSNBC reliably attack Trump. You can see this in all of the coverage of every domestic issue from the wall, to family separation, to the impeachment. However, whenever there is coverage of any foreign policy event or issue the support or opposition of the President is not consistent along an outlet’s ideological lines.
For example, in April of 2017 President Trump bombed an airfield in Syria that was used to carry out a chemical attack on civilians. MSNBC, which from the moment Trump began to run for president vehemently opposed him, touted it as a good moment for Trump. The best example of this is Brian Williams’ interview of former naval officer Malcolm Nance in which Williams says, “I’m tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons’” describing the images taken of the missiles being launched from navy vessels at the airfields.
On the other hand, when you look at an outlet like Fox News’ coverage of Trump’s foreign policy you see similar kinds of discrepancies. Normally Fox News is always the first in line to defend Trump, including everything from his impeachment to the Access Hollywood tapes. However, when it comes to his foreign policy their defense of him is far from consistent. For instance, fast forward over two years from Brian Williams marveling over our beautiful missiles, in October of last year Trump withdrew the last of our forces from northern Syria leaving the door open to an invasion of that region by Turkey. Fox News’ Chris Wallace, in an interview with Defense Secretary Esper pressured Esper on the effects of Turkey’s intervention and blamed the Trump administration for the fate of the Kurds, and the escape of ISIS captives.
While it is true that these discrepancies are not shown consistently in all the reports by all of the talking heads across these two networks, they are certainly noticeable. So it begs the question of
what is prompting these commentators to break from the partisan affiliation of their networks. One might just assume they simply just mean what they say whether they agree or disagree with the president. However, I find this unlikely since a person’s disagreements with the institution they work for are more likely to be randomly distributed than be confined to one category of issues. Also since when has anyone in the mainstream media said everything they actually believe all the time, I doubt ever.
I’m a big believer in the power of incentives and when you can’t figure out why someone or a group of people are doing something follow the money and it will likely lead you there. In the case of major TV news networks like Fox and MSNBC this is easy, because they make all their money selling air time for ads on their channels. So if you want to follow the money just watch the commercials. Any time I turn on either of these networks I always see ads for companies selling things that average consumers who are the viewing audience would never possibly buy. For example, every time I see commercials for defense contractors like Boeing and Raytheon. The home audience could not possibly be looking to buy a 747, but I guarantee you that Boeing isn’t spending the money for nothing.
It’s common practice in corporate sponsorship to pull sponsorship if the sponsee says or does something the sponsor disagrees with. So I find it much more likely that these defense contractors use their sponsorship of these networks as a means of shaping their narrative, and the narrative that helps defense contractors is the pro war narrative, because the more war there is the more weapons they sell. Consequently, it’s not a surprise that whenever these talking heads deviate from partisan loyalty on foreign policy it’s to sell more war to the public, with normally anti Trump MSNBC reporting on Trump’s missile attack being beautiful, and normally pro Trump Fox bemoaning his withdrawal from Syria.
Hopefully the American people will see this for themselves and realize there is no news on television that isn’t at least shaped if not defined by outside special interests.