This month, a lot of media stories have compared President Johnson’s war in Vietnam and President Obama’s war in Afghanistan. The comparisons are often valid, but a key parallel rarely gets mentioned — the media’s insistent support for the war even after most of the public has turned against it.
This omission relies on the mythology that the U.S. news media functioned as tough critics of the Vietnam War in real time, a fairy tale so widespread that it routinely masquerades as truth. In fact, overall, the default position of the corporate media is to bond with war policymakers in Washington — insisting for the longest time that the war must go on.
In early 1968, after several years of massive escalation of the Vietnam War, the Boston Globe conducted a survey of 39 major U.S. daily newspapers and found that not a single one had editorialized in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. While millions of Americans were actively demanding an immediate pullout, such a concept was still viewed as extremely unrealistic by the editorial boards of big daily papers — including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.
A similar pattern took shape during Washington’s protracted war in Iraq. Year after year, the editorial positions of major dailies have been much more supportive of the U.S. war effort than the American public.
In mid-spring 2004, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll was showing that "one in four Americans say troops should leave Iraq as soon as possible and another 30 percent say they should come home within 18 months." But as usual, when it came to rejection of staying the war course, the media establishment lagged way behind the populace.
Despite sometimes-withering media criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, all of the sizable newspapers steered clear of calling for withdrawal. Many favored sending in even more troops. On May 7, 2004, Editor & Publisher headlined a column by the magazine’s editor, Greg Mitchell, this way: "When Will the First Major Newspaper Call for a Pullout in Iraq?"
Today, the gap between mainline big media and the grassroots is just as wide. Top policymakers for what has become Obama’s Afghanistan war can find their assumptions mirrored in the editorials of the nation’s mighty newspapers — at the same time that opinion polls are showing a dramatic trend against the war.
While a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 51 percent of the public says the war in Afghanistan isn’t worth fighting, the savants who determine big media’s editorial positions insist on staying the course.
Recycled from the repetition-compulsion department, a spate of new hand-wringing editorials has bemoaned the shortcomings of Washington’s allied leader in the occupied country. Of course the edifying pitch includes the assertion that the Afghan government and its armed forces must get their act together. (Good help is hard to find.)
"President Obama has rightfully defined success in Afghanistan as essential to America’s struggle against al-Qaeda," the New York Times editorialized on Aug. 21. Yet al-Qaeda, according to expert assessments, is scarcely present in Afghanistan any more. There are dozens of countries where that terrorist group or other ones could be said to have a much larger presence. Does that mean the U.S. government should be prepared to wage war in all of those countries?
Paragraph after paragraph of the editorial proclaimed what must be done to win the war. It was all boilerplate stuff of the sort that has littered the editorial pages of countless newspapers for many years during one protracted war after another — in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan.
When congressional leaders and top administration officials read such editorials, they can take comfort in finding reaffirmed support for their insistence on funding more and more war. If only public opinion would cooperate, there’d be no political problem.
But, increasingly, public opinion is not cooperating. While the media establishment and the political establishment appear to belong to the same pro-war affinity group, the public is shifting to the other side of a widening credibility gap.
In a word, the problem — and the threat for the press and the state — can be summed up as democracy.
Now, one of the pivotal questions is what "liberal" and "progressive" online organizations will do in the coming months. Many are led by people who privately understand that Obama’s war escalation is on track for cascading catastrophes. But they do not want to antagonize the leading Democrats in Washington, who contend that more war in Afghanistan is the only viable political course. Will that undue deference to the Obama administration continue, despite the growing evidence of disaster and the sinking poll numbers for the war?
A cautionary note for those who assume that the impacts of public opinion will put a brake on the accelerating U.S. war in Afghanistan: That assumption is based on a misunderstanding of how the USA’s warfare state really functions.
Under the headline "Someone Tell the President the War Is Over," the New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: "A president can’t stay the course when his own citizens (let alone his own allies) won’t stay with him." That was way back in August 2005.
(The next day, I wrote a piece headlined "Someone Tell Frank Rich the War Is Not Over.")
The war on Vietnam persisted for several horrific years after the polls were showing that most Americans disapproved. The momentum of a large-scale and protracted U.S. war of military occupation is massive and cataclysmic after the engine has really been gunned.
That’s one of the most chilling parallels between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. The news media are part of the deadly process. So are the politicians who remain hitched to some expedient calculus. And so are we, to the extent that we go along with the conventional wisdom of the warfare state.