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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

May 20, 2018   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsEye on the Media

Journalists and the Iraq War

This week marked 15 years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, a disastrous foreign policy decision that has ensured destabilization and continued violence in the Middle East.

It’s worth using this “anniversary” to explore the media’s role in the rationalization for the Iraq War. As has been widely documented, in the lead-up to the war, the U.S. media largely acted as cheerleaders for the Bush administration’s push for an invasion, abdicating any semblance of holding the government elite accountable. So 15 years later, have journalists learned their lesson?

In some ways.

One of the silver linings of the Donald Trump presidency is that the media has exhibited a healthier dose of skepticism when it comes to government narratives and presidential proclamations, stepping forward to challenge a litany of obvious Trump lies. Hopefully, this habit of disbelieving government claims until they are proven factual will stick next time the government tries to sell a nonsensical war.

Still, there’s reason to believe it won’t. One reason is that the media still displays a startling propensity to glorify conflict. A notable example was in 2017, when MSNBC’s Brian Williams called pictures of Pentagon missiles strikes in Syria “beautiful.” And it wasn’t just Williams; in general, the media gushed over Trump’s 2017 airstrikes.

In addition, much like they did before the Iraq War, too many journalists still piggyback on one another to spread easy, lazy narratives. One example of this has been the media’s recent attempt to glorify the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, as a progressive leader. While bin Salman has taken steps to open up Saudi society to women, he has spearheaded a brutal war in Yemen and has also maintained the death penalty for blasphemy, sorcery, adultery and homosexuality. In addition, another lazy narrative the media continues to spread is that college students are oversensitive and oppose free speech. As with some stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in this designation. But overall, this portrayal is based on the media’s massive oversimplification and exaggeration of many students’ views.

All this is to say that the media is attracted to easy narratives that can be easily replicated and spread, even if they end up being misleading or blatantly false. This is what the Iraq War was sold on. And given journalists’ continued preoccupation with simple narratives, it would be naive to believe that the media will challenge largescale warmongering in the future.

Evan Popp can be reached at epopp@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @evanpopp22