News, as the columnist Walter Lippmann wrote a century ago, comes to us “helter-skelter.” This is fine, he said, in simple cases like a baseball score or a weather report, but where the picture is more nuanced, “as for example in the matter of the success of a policy, or the social conditions among a foreign people…where the real answer is neither yes nor no, but subtle and a matter of balanced evidence,” then journalism “causes no end of derangement, misunderstanding and even misinterpretation.”
One could hardly find a better example of the maladies Lippmann diagnosed than in President Donald Trump’s on-again, off-again orders to attack Iran. Reporters are desperate to write the kind of hushed-breath tick-tock accounts in which experienced warriors and diplomats make life-or-death decisions based on a careful weighing of geopolitics, allied advice, and national interests.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to the Trump presidency. The key contextual fact—one that appeared in no straight-news story of which I am aware—was stated by George Conway, a conservative Trump critic married to White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Written at 1 am the same day that Trump ordered and then unordered a strike, George Conway tweeted, “So in two hours it’ll be 3 a.m., and an erratic, unstable, incompetent, ignorant, intellectually lazy, narcissistic, and sociopathic man whose judgment no serious, intelligent person trusts remains in charge of deciding whether or not to start a potential war in Western Asia.”
A second contextual point too rarely recognized is that for the past 12 years, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton has used every imaginable excuse to call for the United States to bomb Iran. The rationales have shifted, but the belligerence has remained throughout.
A third important example of misplaced focus is the failure of most of the news stories to note that this administration, from the president on down, is staffed almost exclusively by liars. Just in case there was any confusion about this, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helpfully reminded everyone by telling the same lies that George W. Bush and company told in 2002. “There is no doubt there is a connection [between Al Qaeda and Iran]. Period. Full stop,” Pompeo told Congress in April, as if reading from one of the Bush team’s old scripts. (“You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror,” Bush pretended in 2002, as he prepared the nation for his disastrous invasion.)
Last time, then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld eagerly participated in the White House’s propaganda campaign. Today, nearly all Pentagon officials who are not Trump acolytes have learned better than to endorse his lies. While former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders became famous for rarely briefing the press and lying when she did, the Defense Department has taken this tack to an extreme degree: a virtual vow of silence. There has not been a single on-the-record, question-and-answer Pentagon briefing of reporters in the past year, though its press shop has managed to trot out a washed-up rock star (Gene Simmons of Kiss) and a C-list actor (Gerard Butler) flogging war movies instead. When it looked as if Bolton had succeeded in persuading Trump to OK the bombing mission, reporters were summoned for what The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi called “less a briefing than an audio news release.” The event lasted about three minutes, and no questions were allowed.
The result is that nobody anywhere knows what is going on or what will be implemented. When it comes to Trump’s decision-making, incoherence is often all the press can confirm. One day a front-page New York Times story quoted “a senior administration official” saying Trump canceled the attack when the planes were in the air. It then quoted Trump denying this, but later he admitted it. A follow-up story credited anti-immigrant talk-show bloviator Tucker Carlson with persuading Trump not to attack Iran but added, in this case with unusual candor, that the entire sequence of events “remained to some extent shrouded in mystery even to some of those involved.”
In the coverage leading up to the decision, the Columbia Journalism Review found numerous examples of headlines that simply repeated the administration’s self-interested narrative. It’s a flaw that dogs almost all straight-news stories about this president and his administration, but it is particularly worrisome when it comes to matters of life and death. A Times headline read, “Citing Iranian Threat, U.S. Sends Carrier Group and Bombers to Persian Gulf,” without adding the fact that it was the United States threatening Iran, repeatedly, rather than the other way around. A few days later, CNN dropped the sourcing and went with “US deploying more Patriot missiles to Middle East, amid Iranian threats.”
With the media focusing on the minutiae of whether the intelligence information proves that Iranian mines were used in the recent attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman or who, exactly, was whispering in the president’s ear at the time of his flip-flop, the larger question of what the hell is going on gets ignored. The word “threat” is used over and over, but the only threat Iran poses to the United States is its possible retaliation for all of the attacks, including recent cyberattacks, that the Trump administration is conducting. Saudi Arabia murdered a Washington Post columnist; is killing and torturing dissidents arguing for human rights, especially women’s rights; and is conducting mass murder with US weaponry in Yemen. It was also home to 15 of the 19 attackers on 9/11 and funds Islamic radicalism across the world. Why isn’t Saudi Arabia the threat, and why—with all the interviews that Bolton, Pompeo, and Vice President Mike Pence are giving of late—isn’t anybody asking?