It would have been hard to guess that the one thing to unite the media and President Donald Trump’s administration would be a military strike.
Nevertheless, that seemed to be exactly what happened as the nation’s press responded to Trump’s order Thursday night to bomb Assad regime military targets at the Al Shayrat Military Airfield north of Damascus. Trump made the decision after reports emerged about the Syrian government using chemical weapons on its own people, as it has done several times before. And the way the media has appeared to reconcile itself to the president on this issue has the potential for even greater harm to the nation’s journalistic institutions than a president often hostile to reporters.
Pundits at outlets like Fox News were predictably supportive of the Republican administration’s actions, with Jeanine Pirro of “Fox and Friends” praising Trump’s actions as “swift” and “decisive” Friday.
But even a fair number of those journalists who typically find themselves in disagreement with the president were willing to switch sides to praise the Syrian airstrike. The word of the moment seemed to be “presidential.”
“I think Donald Trump became president of the United States [Thursday night]”, CNN pundit and prominent Trump critic Fareed Zakaria said of the strike hours after it happened. Even more extreme, MSNBC news host Brian Williams quoted lines from a Leonard Cohen ballad to describe the president’s airstrike.
“They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments,” Williams said in an almost dreamy tone of footage of the missiles’ launch as he presented news of the strike Thursday night. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen, ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”
Williams’s reaction to the bombing was unquestionably absurd — but the only real difference between his reaction and that of the rest of the media was how obvious the absurdity was.
Trump’s action in bombing Syrian government targets was presidential only in the sense that presidents before him have also bombed Middle Eastern countries. The decision to make the strike appears fairly arbitrary itself — Trump himself repeatedly voiced opposition to military intervention in Syria during last year’s presidential campaign. And the rush among national TV journalists to praise Trump’s military action doesn’t reflect a genuine reaction to the facts of the story, so much as happiness that any decision was made at all. The reaction feels like it’s just the media’s attempt to jump on a lucrative story — and that’s cause for serious concern.
In a Facebook post Friday, veteran journalist and former CBS anchor Dan Rather deplored the reaction among the likes of Zakaria and Williams as “concerning.” “War must never be considered a public relations operation,” Rather said. “It is not a way for an administration to gain a narrative.”
A media reaction that instantly labels a military strike as “presidential” falls into precisely this trap. If media outlets are unwilling to use a critical eye in reporting on a story of as much importance as Thursday night’s bombing in Syria, they might as well not report the story at all.