Journalists in the United States have a long and ignoble history of serving as eager conduits for pro-war propaganda. Typically, this behavior is motivated by Washington’s desire to commence or continue a military crusade.
However, such a breach of journalistic ethics does occur occasionally on behalf of a foreign country that both US political leaders and news media elites have accepted as a favorite cause. We are currently witnessing the latter occurrence in the coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in the press.
The media narrative that has prevailed is that the US administration (and all Americans) must “stand with Ukraine” in its opposition to Russian invasion.
Ukraine’s cause is now fairly universally identified, and it is filled with arrogant righteousness. Notably absent is any notion, previously prevalent in American foreign policy and public discourse, that America’s interests are frequently – and should be – separate from those of any foreign country.
The conflict’s television coverage exemplifies the emotionalism and shallowness. American viewers are bombarded with images of invading Russian forces exploding shells, frightened, crying refugees fleeing the invaders (mainly women and children), and shots of other determined Ukrainian residents arming themselves to defend their country.
Television is a visual medium that is constantly attempting to stir viewers’ emotions, but that element has gotten completely outlandish in its coverage of the Ukraine war. Providing an onslaught of photos of devastated civilian fleeing contributes little to anyone’s comprehension of the conflict’s origins, underlying concerns, or potential outcome.
Indeed, renowned news organizations have been guilty of disseminating unsophisticated Ukrainian propaganda. Some of the material they broadcasted was discovered to be fraudulent.
A widely distributed photograph depicting a Ukrainian child verbally challenging Russian forces was actually of a Palestinian girl addressing Israeli troops. Despite a well-publicized picture op, Miss Ukraine 2015 did not take up arms against the Russian invaders. When the image was examined more closely, it revealed that woman was wielding an Airsoft gun.
Several photographs of Ukrainian pilots attacking Russian aggressors were taken from video games.
Additionally, a variety of more subtle, but decidedly fraudulent, narratives have been provided by US news organizations. The legendary Snake Island martyrs, who were allegedly blasted to pieces after disobeying and cursing a Russian vessel, were discovered to be very much alive.
The American news media dutifully reported in early March on a Ukrainian military report that it had badly damaged, if not completely destroyed, the Russian patrol ship Vasiliy Bykov in the Black Sea. The incident was reportedly a big success for Russia, as the vessel was one of the country’s newest battleships.
Kyiv’s claim, however, suffered a huge setback on March 16, when the Vasily Bykov sailed into the Crimean port of Sevastopol, presumably uninjured.
In light of these concerns about war reports, American journalists should exercise caution in reflexively relaying Ukrainian official charges.
For instance, Kyiv has often alleged that Russian forces purposefully target residential areas during their shelling campaigns, and the US media have echoed those assertions. Perhaps the charges are genuine, but the widely recognized statistic for Ukrainian civilian casualties (726 as of March 17) does not appear to be consistent with completely indiscriminate assaults. Journalists should at the very least be skeptical of Kyiv’s charges, but there is minimal indication of rigorous inquiry.
It would not be the first time that segments of the American press became eager conduits for foreign disinformation during the Ukraine war.
Prior to the United States’ entry into World War I, major American newspapers and magazines believed British propaganda about German forces perpetrating a variety of atrocities in Belgium, including raping nuns and bayoneting infants. Although these allegations were ultimately revealed to be complete fabrications, they had a significant effect on American popular perceptions toward Germany.
Seven decades later, in the aftermath of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the American press performed similarly poorly. In October 1990, media outlets prominently covered Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearings including purported eyewitnesses to Iraqi war atrocities. The star witness was a weeping 15-year-old girl identified only as “Nayirah” by Caucus chairman Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA).
Lantos emphasized that a more detailed identity may jeopardize her friends and relatives in Kuwait. Nayirah described herself as a hospital volunteer who observed Iraqi soldiers forcibly removing neonates from their incubators. This apparently occurred at three hospitals and resulted in the death of 312 newborns.
The account was part of a sophisticated deception effort orchestrated by Kuwait’s government with the goal of whipping up American public opinion into a frenzy of support for war against Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. The plain message was that a system capable of such horrible atrocities had to be brought to an end.
Eventually, the incubator atrocity story’s untruth proved irrefutable, especially when it was revealed that “Nayirah” was not a hospital volunteer, but rather the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States. However, by that time, the US and its allies were at war with Iraq. The fabricated propaganda story served its aim.
In retrospect, it’s a mystery how experienced journalists in the United States could have propagated such an inflammatory tale without making even the most rudimentary attempt to corroborate it. Nonetheless, they did so.
Worse, their successors who are reporting the Ukraine war show no better skepticism in challenging Kyiv’s version of events. Rather than that, they trust words and photographs provided by Ukrainian officials as if their legitimacy is unquestionable.
Such naivety exposes the media to opportunistic exploitation by yet another foreign state. And make no mistake: the current propaganda campaign’s objective is to build popular support in the United States for Washington’s military involvement on Ukraine’s behalf.
This time, the American public must recognize pro-war propaganda in the news media for what it is and refuse to fall for it.
Content created by WD Staff
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