Attacking Democrats From the Right: The Faux Adversarial Sweet Spot for U.S. Journalists
The White House press reporters grilling the Biden administration for not supporting more weapons shipments and a "no-fly zone" perfectly captures their core function.
The Intercept’s Ryan Grim posted an informative video montage of White House press reporters aggressively questioning Biden press secretary Jen Psaki over the White House’s allegedly insufficient support for a no-fly zone and provocative military hardware to counter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a useful objection lesson in one of the key features of American journalism: the Faux Adversarial Reporter
The basic idea is that most reporters view themselves as speaking truth to power, taking on moneyed interest, looking out for the little guy. But the reality is, given corporate media’s ideological filters and monetary constraints, the vast bulk of their job is either laundering leaks for the police or intelligence community, discourse policing, or simply reading off press releases of powerful people. There’s a fundamental tension between their core function (protecting power) and their self-perception (taking on power). But, occasionally, a unique opportunity presents itself: An elected leader, sometimes even the President, goes off script or wants to damp down a rush to military escalation, or even, as was the case with Afghanistan, supports a deescalation. For the American press, this type of situation is Christmas morning, because high-status reporters get to reconcile the core contradiction of their stated purpose and their real purpose: They are able to serve the power centers of our permanent national security state while looking like they’re actually taking on power by grilling an elected leader from the right.
This dynamic was seen most profoundly in the almost universal, nonstop media indignation over The Only Good Thing former President Trump ever did—agreeing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (these peace summits, it’s worth remembering, were supported by the vast majority of South Koreans and spearheaded by the South Korean left), along with President Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.
On the Afghanistan withdrawal, the fourth wall was broken altogether, and the contempt oozed from almost every major outlet:
Ostensibly straight reporter, NBC’s Ken Dilanian (last seen being fired from the L.A. Times for giving the CIA approval over his stories) laments the U.S. withdrawal:
Ostensibly straight reporter, NBC’s Richard Engel, was having visible meltdowns as the U.S. withdrew, complete with orientalist poetic waxing.
Ostensibly straight reporter, the New York Times’ Peter Baker, as I noted at the time, sought comment from a Raytheon board member to openly lobby against the withdrawal under the guise of “news analysis”:
Ostensibly straight reporter, CNN’s Jim Sciutto (who literally worked for the U.S. State Department between his reporting jobs at ABC News and CNN) was lamenting the withdrawal with this not at all manipulative framing of soon-to-be-terrorists running amok.
There are, of course, dozens more examples of American reporters and pundits openly lobbying against the withdrawal with varying degrees of smarm and process concern trolling.
Over the past couple of weeks, the same actors are reciting the same script: Biden is seen as insufficiently involved in the Ukraine conflict. Here, from Feb. 28, Engel spitballs NATO war games on behalf of the president:
And today, another normal day of nonstop grilling of the White House over more military hardware shipments:
None of this to say that the Biden administration is a beacon of peace and anti-imperialism: Its view is pretty bog standard liberal interventionism constrained by the realpolitik of the Cold War—namely, that you don’t engage in a hot war with Russia. Which is what makes all the open lobbying by reporters to “hold Biden accountable” for the transgression of not wanting to directly fire on Russia in Ukraine that much more noteworthy. They’re attacking an already fairly hawkish American leader from the right, egging him, grilling him, pushing him to display empathy in the only language they understand: military escalation. A military escalation that, needless to say, carries with it considerable and existential risks.
Whether it’s concern for civilians being bombed in Ukraine, or women’s rights in Afghanistan, there are, of course, genuine humanitarian factors in play. But these concerns are selective and largely pretextual. We know this because no such collective media pile-on has occurred pushing the Biden White House to end its support for the Saudi bombing in Yemen that has killed almost 400,000 civilians. No such media outrage has ever occurred demanding Biden cease supporting Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine, or indiscriminate bombings of Gaza in 2021, 2014, or 2012. No such media outrage has followed the sunsetting of the Child Tax Credit that just threw 3.7 million American children into poverty, which the Biden White House did next to nothing to draw attention to. The collective outrages are only reserved for when the U.S. is “shying” from its “international obligations” of using its military to punish enemy states.
On the domestic front, there’s a similar dynamic popular in local news: grilling the police and city officials for not sufficiently “cracking down on crime.” I wrote about this mode of faux adversarial journalism last November when L.A. Times columnist Robin Abcarian bravely took on Los Angeles city officials for not sufficiently going after low-level bike thieves, publishing gumshoe reportage complete with doxing a homeless camp.
It’s a perverse incentive scheme: When the opportunity arises for reporters to flatter their own self image as speakers of truth to power, which also happens to line up with their actual job of carrying water for the U.S. national security state and its attendant moral preening about human rights and civilian deaths, they can’t resist. It’s a time for tough questions, Peabody-baiting TV coverage, mugging about innocent life, and the need to “act” “now” to “protect civilians”—all of which just so happens to track with the forces of increased militarism.