Why 24 hour cable news can’t help cheerleading for war

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The other day, I wrote about the perverse sort of media excitement I was sensing during the run-up to war in Syria. Inasmuch as we’re only a decade removed from the run-up to war in Iraq — and since most media elites turned sharply against the Iraq invasion — this struck me as odd.

But it occurs to me that this is also inevitable. In fact, in our current environment, cable news will inexorably lead the charge. There are good reasons for this.

First, as any conservative will lament, TV is much better at conveying emotion than it is at presenting complex debates about unintended consequences. Watching a video of victims of horrific chemical attacks foaming at the mouth is understandably more moving than hearing an “esoteric” debate about the dangers of intervention.

Besides, Americans are biased toward action. And as a compassionate people, we want to help the victims — and hold someone responsible. This is perfectly understandable.

But it’s important to understand that the medium of television takes what would already be an emotional stimulus to another level. Hearing about such attacks — or even just seeing a photo of an attack — wouldn’t have the same impact as seeing the images replayed on a b-roll loop.

It almost doesn’t matter what is said, so long as the war is the main topic. The talking head on your TV right now might be painstakingly arguing that bombing Syria is a bad idea. It almost doesn’t matter. If the topic is the build-up to war, then the result is to gin up excitement — excitement which could ultimately impact public opinion and the decisions our leaders make.

Speaking of leaders, once the media becomes a 24/7 “run-up-to-war” media machine, it seems to throw the balance of power to the people who want intervention. Presidents already have the bully pulpit, but during these tense times, they command even more attention. This can drown out dissenters more easily than during normal times. What is more, the media becomes more susceptible to passing on disinformation and propaganda being fed to them by their sources. After all, they are tired and this is a competitive business. They need scoops.


Having said that, my main point is that it doesn’t really matter what is being said, so much as that war is being discussed — and how it is being said. Criticism gets drowned out amid the music and all the breathless reporting that “Breaking news on the crisis in Syria where President Obama is expected to speak…” It would be like a pre-game show with all the music and video and hullabaloo, where one of the guests insists: “But the Eagles and the Redskins really shouldn’t even play tonight.”

Now, I realize that it is in the public’s interest for serious reporters to cover international events. And as Michael Calderone reported, responsible journalists are working hard to avoid making the same mistakes they made a decade ago. So I’m not suggesting a media blackout. Of all the superficial things we cover, this is certainly journalistically worthy. Having said that, there is a difference between staying updated on developments or raising concerns, versus turning war into a popcorn entertainment event.

Let’s be honest: Once cable news channels are branding “THE SYRIA CRISIS” and adding theme music, it sort of becomes a TV show — a slickly-polished one that comes equipped with cool visuals (bombs and rockets exploding, etc.) and ratings. And if media figures sometimes seem giddy (or if you can see through the affected facade of seriousness), it’s only because they have a conflict of interest. Don’t blame them. The medium is the message.

Matt K. Lewis