Whether it’s called a war or a humanitarian “kinetic military action,” there are certain patterns in corporate media coverage when the U.S. is engaged in military action, and the bombing of Libya is no exception—from a parade of officials to a narrow range of debate to an emphasis on the infallible precision of U.S. weapons.
Once they abandoned their early position against intervention in favor of a robust UN resolution, the administration had plenty of room to make its case. Immediately after the U.S./NATO airstrikes against Libya were launched on March 19, U.S. Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen appeared on every network’s Sunday morning chat show to make the case for war. The next Sunday, NBC’s Meet the Press, ABC’s This Week and CBS’s Face the Nation all featured joint appearances by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Fox News Sunday was the exception—but not by choice. Fox was apparently shut out, leaving host Chris Wallace to complain on the air about his show’s lack of White House officials.
That’s not to suggest that there was no debate over the war. Some Republican politicians and conservative pundits voiced opposition, whether simply as an anti-Obama stance or a call for swifter action and a broader military campaign. A typical debate line-up, though, looked like the one CNN hosted after Obama’s televised address (3/28/11): ubiquitous Mideast pundit Fouad Ajami (Obama “should have done this much earlier”), Beltway fixture David Gergen (Obama made a “very strong case for intervention”), former George W. Bush spokesperson Ari Fleischer (“This is something that should have been done four weeks ago”) and Obama State Department alum Anne-Marie Slaughter (“You might say if [Obama]’s getting criticized that heavily from both left and right, he really is striking a good balance”).
Fox vs. MSNBC
Fox and MSNBC, conventionally perceived as taking opposing sides, managed to find common ground when it came to this war. Fox host Bill O’Reilly (3/21/11) was an early supporter, advocating the attack as revenge for Libya’s alleged role in the 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. (See Extra!, 10/09, for some of the questions about Libya’s culpability.) That very night, left-leaning MSNBC host Ed Schultz offered the same justification for supporting the bombing: “Do you need any more evidence? Has Gadhafi ever proven his innocence?” It’s an odd standard, at least by conventional U.S. legal principles.
Schultz’s MSNBC colleague Rachel Maddow (3/21/11) offered a more complicated rationale, hinging her support on Obama’s potential ability to change negative Arab perceptions of U.S. foreign policy: “President Obama wants the narrative to be something different. He very clearly did not want there to be another American military action in the Arab world. He is very open about his reluctance.”
That hesitancy was precisely what bothered some conservatives, who took the opportunity to dust off their talking points about Obama’s supposed indifference to American exceptionalism (FAIR Blog, 12/21/10). Fox’s Brit Hume (3/20/11) complained that Obama’s worldview was unlike other presidents:
To this president, the presence and the sight of American leadership in an operation of this kind or intervention of any kind is a stigma. I think his predecessors and many people in this country believe that American leadership is essential and it is not delegitimizing in any way.
It was an odd ideological dynamic, with TV’s left and right judging Obama not on his bombing campaign per se, but on the degree of enthusiasm he seemed to display for it.
A war where no one dies
Whatever one made of the rationale for war or the White House’s lackluster PR efforts, one media theme was consistent: U.S. war-making is remarkably safe. CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence (3/21/11) offered the confidence of Pentagon officials as proof of their infallibility:
American Tomahawk missiles can be reprogrammed in flight. If there was a risk of civilian casualties, operators could change the target after launch. But the Navy did not use that ability, confident it was aiming at military targets. Moammar Gadhafi says the strikes killed civilians. But a Defense official told us if you don’t have to reprogram your missile, you’re very confident in what you’re hitting.
But, whoops, turns out the NATO strikes have killed some civilians after all. The New York Times (3/31/11) reassured readers, though, that the family of the first reported victim, an 18-month-old child, “welcomed the bombs.” Another strike that reportedly killed seven civilians—all between the ages of 12 and 20—and injured 25 more was reported in the British media (e.g., BBC, 4/1/11), but the U.S. press apparently found it not newsworthy enough to even mention.