Armed conflict has a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in US journalism. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, war correspondents have courageously delivered battlefield news reports that lay bare Russian President Vladimir Putin's brutality. Yet many journalists and commentators — most of whom live comfortably removed from the front lines — have lately been calling on the United States to escalate its involvement in dangerous ways.
Leading national security journalists have openly suggested that the US military simply bomb Russian convoys or enact a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would require shooting down Russian planes. The White House press corps has barraged the White House press secretary with questions, practically goading the president to intervene.
Some frame the war as a matter of existential importance for US security, comparing failure to intervene with appeasing former Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
These calls for the US to join the fight seem especially shocking and glib, considering the serious dangers of conflict between two nuclear-armed powers.
As the Atlantic Council's Damir Marusic explains, even minor skirmishes can escalate to nuclear exchanges terrifyingly fast. Given these risks, US President Joe Biden has been understandably cautious — a trait that does not always play well in a polarised news culture. Fox News invited a Ukrainian official to characterise the president making the no-fly zone decision as "afraid" and a Republican senator to call it "heartless." The Wall Street Journal editorial board thinks Putin has "succeeded in intimidating Mr. Biden" with the threat of nuclear escalation.
Meanwhile, the American people are not fully informed on the details or likely consequences of such an action. Polling finds Americans supportive of a no-fly zone at first glance, with support for the idea dropping like a rock once pollsters explain it would almost certainly result in an honest-to-goodness shooting war with Russia.
In times of war, the US' most reputable journalists and media outlets have a long history of tilting toward military action. Just last year, mainstream news outlets subjected the Biden administration to a torrent of criticism over the widely popular decision to withdraw from Afghanistan — a wise move given two decades of failure to create a stable Afghan democracy and the need to rebalance US military capabilities toward competition in Asia.
Although coverage of the Trump presidency was broadly negative, then-US President Donald Trump received fawning praise after he launched a strategically pointless missile strike on Syria in 2017.
Former US President Barack Obama received wide support in the media for his decision to establish a no-fly zone during the First Libyan Civil War (which he would remember as the "worst mistake" of his presidency), and attracted significant criticism for subsequently avoiding intervention in Syria (likely informed by the disastrous consequences of the Libya intervention).
And who can forget news outlets across the political spectrum that failed to challenge the George W. Bush administration's shaky justifications for the Iraq War? One study found that over a three week period prior to the invasion, 64 percent of guests appearing on network and cable news programmes supported the war, whereas only 10 percent were opposed.
This all matters because the editorial choices made by news organisations have a genuine ability to push political decision-making in an unduly hawkish direction. Journalists' ability to shape public opinion is particularly strong in foreign-policy debates for two reasons. First, foreign policy tends to be perceived as less important by voters than domestic issues, so public views on foreign affairs are less strongly held and more easily swayed.
Second, unlike economic challenges like inflation, most voters have no direct exposure to international issues in their daily lives and largely depend on news coverage to form opinions on foreign affairs.
The power of news coverage was on full display last year, when Biden's net approval rating suddenly dropped around 10 percent amid overwhelmingly negative responses in the media regarding his decision to end the war in Afghanistan and the coverage of the evacuation. In contrast, positive coverage of Trump's 2017 missile strike on Syria coincided with a substantial net increase in his approval rating.
This creates perverse incentives for policymakers. Obama and Trump both wanted to end the war in Afghanistan, but both were likely deterred by the media firestorm and subsequent political blowback (which Biden ultimately experienced).
With each of the major news networks devoting an average of 24 minutes of coverage per year to Afghanistan in the four years before the fall of Kabul, continuing the war was as politically easy as it was strategically foolish. Members of Congress are sensitive to media narratives as they constantly campaign for reelection, and this puts further constraints on presidential decision-making.
Put simply, a pro-war bias makes wars easy to start and hard to end.
Where does such a bias come from? First, national security coverage largely relies on official and military sources that, like a man with a hammer who always sees a nail, are likely to favour intervention. When the president withdrew troops from Afghanistan, many of the people criticising his decision on TV were the very national security professionals who were involved (and thus invested) in perpetuating that war. This reliance on official sources by the US press is a concept academics call "indexing," and it limits the range of debate.
There are alternative models. French news, for example, relies more heavily on civil society voices, so it tends to consist of a wider range of perspectives.
As they try to help their audiences make sense of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, networks have featured such retired generals as Philip Breedlove and Wesley Clark. Their support for a no-fly zone creates the impression that this move is supported by experts, though international relations scholars almost unanimously oppose one.
Second, national security reporting is especially dependent on government sources, since it often requires access to active combat zones and sensitive information. Relationships with such sources can make or break a career, and publicly opposing a military position can endanger access.
Third, in an attempt to make complicated geopolitical topics intelligible to a wide audience, journalists and analysts tend to force global events into clear moral frameworks with clear-cut heroes and villains. (Ukraine never seems so democratic as it does when it's under attack.) These frameworks lead to calls for the US to do the right thing. This is exemplified in the comments of Republican Sen. (and rumoured presidential aspirant) Ben Sasse following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's address to Congress: "The administration talks about this like it's somehow some nerd lawyer discussion, not like it's a moral battle between good guys and bad guys, and we need the good guys to win."
Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul put it rather starkly: "If you don't want to give more weapons to Ukraine to stop Putin from killing babies in Ukraine, what do you recommend instead? Be specific.
But actions with morally righteous intentions often devastate the people they aim to help. Just as Libyans and Iraqis are worse off today than they were before they were liberated from the scourge of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi or former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, it's unclear whether more US-supplied weapons on the battlefield will help Ukrainians prevail or prolong their suffering.
Finally, it's easy to imagine the national security journalism profession may attract people who believe strongly in a muscular sort of liberal interventionism. Of course, there's the stereotype of the swashbuckling war reporter. But judging by an admittedly informal and unscientific review of war reporting, many journalists and analysts who write from far beyond the conflict zone appear to think it is both morally sound and strategically wise for the US to use force to uphold norms and end suffering. This would certainly be understandable as many came of age in the wake of America's Cold War victory, a period of intoxicating hubris when such a worldview was ascendent.
As Biden continues to determine how the US will respond to the continuing war in Ukraine, Americans should be disabused of that worldview. American audiences will be well served as journalists continue to vigorously observe and clearly analyse this conflict — as well as their role in it.
Mark Hannah is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and host of its foreign-policy podcast, None of the Above. He teaches media studies at New York University.
Disclaimer This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.