Nov 1 2013

The Illusion of Debate Over Striking Syria

Despite antiwar public—and put-downs of Obama—media back war as usual

Protest against war with Syria, Union Square, New York (cc photo: All-Nite Images)

Protest against war with Syria, Union Square, New York (cc photo: All-Nite Images)

When the United States government is committed to going to war, it can usually count on the corporate media to amplify its message.

In the run-up to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for example, the media provided reliable platforms for saturating the debate with pro-war opinions (Extra!, 11–12/01, 5–6/03). But the US policy debate on Syria presented a somewhat unusual case.

The Obama administration had charged the Assad regime with responsibility for a chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus on August 21; though the US released little public evidence to support this charge, subsequent reports by the UN and Human Rights Watch provided more substantiation (FAIR Blog, 9/17/13). The White House suggested that this act had crossed Barack Obama’s “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, and would require a US military response.

The US public largely agreed with the US government account of what happened in Syria, but expressed remarkably little support for military action as the response (CNN/ORC poll, 9/6–9/8/13). And the level of official unease or outright opposition among political elites to a military attack was striking.

In other words, there was little support for war on Syria—except on US broadcast news, where most of the debates and discussions still tilted in favor of a military attack.

To get a sense of that debate, FAIR surveyed the discussion and debate segments on a key sample of broadcast outlets from August 30—the day Secretary of State John Kerry presented the US government’s intelligence linking the August 21 chemical weapons attack to the Assad regime—through September 10, the day before Obama’s address to the nation that effectively put the brakes on what had seemed like a certain drive to war.

The survey included the network Sunday shows (ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday), the PBS NewsHour and NPR’s Morning Edition, and three cable news shows (MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor and CNN’s Anderson Cooper: 360o).

To focus on the policy discussion, the study excluded correspondent news reports —an NPR Pentagon correspondent filing a piece on the state of military preparedness, for instance. The survey also excluded discussions where Syria was only a passing issue. Commentaries by program hosts—a rarity—were also not included.

Sources participating in discussion or debate segments were coded as either supporting a military strike, opposing a military option or expressing no discernible opinion.

A total of 164 sources were included in the survey. Of that total, 54 were coded as expressing no clear position on the question of military strikes. Of those who did take a firm position, the debate was heavily tilted in favor of attacking Syria: 71 to 39, or nearly 2 to 1. On the four high-profile Sunday chat shows, those supporting military action (34 sources) outnumbered antiwar views (13 sources) by closer to 3 to 1. NBC’s Meet the Press was the only Sunday outlier, with seven pro-war guests more nearly balanced by six opposing military action. Only one guest in the study was Syrian; anti-Assad activist Zaidoun Alzoabi, who appeared on CNN (9/3/13) to voice opposition to a military strike.

One of the more striking aspects of the Syria debate was that many politicians—Republicans in particular—were openly critical of Obama but nonetheless supported military action. “I would vote yes in spite of the president’s conduct,” Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.) explained on Meet the Press (9/8/13), adding that he wished Obama “was more of a commander-in-chief than a community organizer.” Sen. John McCain (Face the Nation, 9/1/13) was a supporter of the war, but noted that “it has to be a strategy. It can’t just be, in my view, pinprick cruise missiles.” Some pro-war voices, like Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard (Meet the Press, 9/1/13), thought Obama “could have intervened a year ago, two years ago.”

The same disappointment with a war that wasn’t robust enough was also offered as a reason to oppose attacking Syria: “I think lobbing a few Tomahawk missiles will not restore our credibility overseas,” declared Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) on Meet the Press (9/8/13).

The amount of criticism leveled by those who ultimately agreed with the White House on attacking Syria gave the illusion of a debate that was more lively or polarized than usual. But in many respects, the media was doing as it normally does—giving the public a steady diet of pro-war opinion. It just didn’t work this time.

Research Assistance: Melanie Nakashian Sluyter.




The Real Enemy: Congressional Oversight

For some reporters and pundits, the most dangerous turn of events was the White House decision to seek congressional approval—putting lawmakers in the position of potentially vetoing a war.

NPR’s Cokie Roberts (Morning Edition, 9/9/13) opined: “If [Obama] loses, it’s devastating for the rest of his term.” Washington Post veteran Bob Woodward, on Face the Nation (9/8/13), referred to constitutionally mandated congressional approval as a “spectacle” that, depending on the outcome, “could be a catastrophe in the world.”

On Fox News Sunday (9/1/13), former Sen. Joe Lieberman declared: “The worst of all ends to this whole saga would be for Congress not to give the president authority to act. It would be catastrophic.”

Even someone like Newt Gingrich, who nominally opposed a “symbolic Syrian attack” (, 9/5/13), nonetheless offered (Meet the Press, 9/8/13) that Obama “literally…could have bombed, done a national speech and said, ‘Here’s why I did it. I’m commander in chief.’… And there would have been almost no negative fallout.”

Or as the pro-war Fox News pundit Brit Hume (O’Reilly Factor, 9/3/13) put it:

I think the president needs to be given the authority he fears he can’t do without to go forward with this, and if it turns out to be a short-lived bombing campaign that doesn’t change the course of the war, so be it. But it’s better than nothing, which I think would be damaging.—P.H.



American Exceptionalism

The media’s general preference for military strikes over a diplomatic solution in Syria was evident in some of the commentary from TV hosts. CBS anchor Bob Schieffer (Face the Nation, 9/8/13) offered a strange call for airstrikes, based less on any particular intelligence or strategy and more on the idea that the United States must attack because it said it would:

The president of the United States drew a line in the sand, a red line. At this point, that may be the only good reason left for Congress to give him the authority he now asked for to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

Schieffer went on: “I don’t like anything about where we are, but in a dangerous world, when the United States takes a stand, and then goes back on its word, we’re left in an even more dangerous place.”

Bob Schieffer worried that the US might "go back on its word" by not bombing Syria

Bob Schieffer worried that the US might “go back on its word” by not bombing Syria

Other prominent voices were just as committed. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly (9/3/13) was unabashedly pro-war, breaking with the Republicans and conservatives who opposed the White House. “Unfortunately, in this world, justice can be imposed by one people only—us,” O’Reilly explained. “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

On ABC’s This Week (9/1/13), host George Stephanopoulos and correspondent Martha Raddatz agreed that Obama’s “red line” clearly meant it was time to attack:

STEPHANOPOULOS: Everybody knows what that means. But even if he hadn’t made that comment, in the face of these pictures, apparently more than a thousand Syrians gassed, including children, I wonder if he’d act anyway.

RADDATZ: You would think he would. You would think he would. As America, as a leader, you think he would.

That kind of American exceptionalism could be heard elsewhere. One of the more unusual exchanges came on CNN, where longtime foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour was practically rendered speechless by other guests who were critical of military intervention: “I can barely contain myself at this point,” she said on one CNN panel (9/12/13). She went on:

The president of the United States and the most moral country in the world based on the most moral principles in the world—at least that’s the fundamental principle that the United States rests on—cannot allow this to go unchecked, cannot allow this to go unchecked.… I’m so emotional about this.

That vision of American exceptionalism—of the US as the one country that can, and must, wield violence in the name of justice—has a flipside, of course: the perfidy of our supposed enemies. That aspect was offered by Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey on CNN (9/5/13), who explained that while Americans prefer wars one way (“We want to do it quickly. We want to win. We hope to get out quickly.”), Arabs are different:

In the Arab world, war is always about the victims. They are always showing you the dead babies. They’re always showing you the people that have been killed by American bombs, even if they weren’t killed by American bombs. And you will have this war, very quickly you’ll have a war of public opinion all over the Arab world once the bombing begins that will be based on what will be called American atrocities. That’s one of the things that’s fairly predictable in this conflict and it’s going to be very ugly, indeed.—P.H.

Extra! November 2013