Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike on Syria is a critical moment for our nation, and our nation’s media. It is a realignment of executive power, which has for years been expanding, especially in terms of international affairs, surveillance and national security. And it is a reassertion of the role of citizens in a self-governing democracy.
The president made clear that his decision was not just a matter of involving lawmakers, but also involving the nation in this decision. “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” he said on Saturday. In calling on Congress to take up this debate he is also calling on the American people to make their voices heard.
While he asserted his right to move forward without a Congressional vote, he argued, “The country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”
In a moment of such profound consequence, what is the role and responsibility of journalists? If we are to have a meaningful debate about our next steps in Syria, what do we need from our media to facilitate that?
Not long after President Obama’s announcement we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry would be doing five Sunday talk shows on Sunday morning to make the administration’s case to the American people. This is one role the media can play, but hopefully it won’t be the only one. These are the same stages where the war in Iraq was sold.
Indeed, the media’s role in the lead up to the war in Iraq has loomed large in the escalating conflict in Syria. “The war drums have started beating even louder in recent days,” writes Michael Calderone in the Huffington Post, “as unnamed government officials have made the administration’s case for intervention through the media, a strategy that also evokes the run-up to war a decade ago.”
Calderone traces how the media’s coverage this time around has shown more restraint and skepticism and quotes a memo from Ted Bridis, the AP’s investigative editor. Bridis encouraged reporters to “dive deep into questions about quantifying and understanding the U.S. government’s justification for military intervention in Syria, which increasingly seems inevitable.”
Secretary of State Kerry’s media blitz on Sunday illustrates how hard the administration is going to push to get their message out through the media. Other signs include the steep uptick Syria related information coming from official leaks and anonymous sources. In “The mood music that led pretty much every media outlet to say confidently that the US was on the brink of military action came courtesy of an ensemble of unofficial sources,” writes Paul Lewis in The Guardian.
When the vast resources of government are being turned toward waging a public campaign of this sort, journalists must do more than provide a vehicle for administration talking points. Unfortunately, especially on the Sunday morning talk shows, this is too often the default. Regardless of what you think about military intervention in Syria, we should expect and demand that journalists push back hard on the official government line. While we’ve seen more push back in the White House briefing room, asking hard questions is just one part of what our nation needs right now.
The Syrian conflict is complex – a true wicked problem – and if we are going to have a real public debate about these issue we need newsrooms to help explain the context of the crisis we face right now. We need a better sense of the history of the place and the conflict, the players and the evidence we have. We need to wrap our heads around the global systems of power influencing our position. We need expert analysis and we need to hear from Syrian’s themselves.
There are more than two sides and two solutions to this crisis. This isn’t a choice between attacking or doing nothing, but it would be easy to report it as such, to boil it down to a false dichotomy. What are the various kinds of military intervention we might pursue? What options exist outside of military force? We need to understand the full range of potential solutions and actions.
We need a media that helps us answer these (and many other) questions. We need a media that helps facilitate a respectful and reasoned dialogue. We need a media that amplifies the voices of local people not just government officials.
Jay Rosen has described the journalism industry’s performance in the lead up to the Iraq invasion as “the biggest press failure in the post WW II era.” Congress is expected to reconvene on September 9 – although they could return to DC earlier – and vote soon after on the authorization. We have just over a week. How newsrooms use that week will tell us a lot about the role of journalism in our democracy today.
What do you think the media needs to do, what questions do they need to ask, what information do you need to know? Add your thoughts to the comments below.
(Image of violence in Syria mapped by the UN via FreedomHouse, used under creative commons license)