Pushing Back Against Pro-War Narratives in the Media

Peace Advocate December 2022

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts routine operations May 18, 2021, in the Taiwan Strait. (MC3 Zenaida Roth/Navy)
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) conducts routine operations May 18, 2021, in the Taiwan Strait. (MC3 Zenaida Roth/US Navy)

by Tom Valovic

One of the biggest challenges for peace activists at Mass Peace Action and in other organizations is countering the seemingly endless stream of pro-war narratives put out by the mainstream media. During the Vietnam war, the mainstream press did a good job revealing the inconsistencies and distortions in government narratives used to sell the war to the American public.

Unfortunately, in the wake of 9/11 under the Bush/Cheney administration, both the executive branch and the military establishment became much more adept at hiding the dark underbelly of US military plans, policies, and initiatives from the public view. They did this in several ways. First, by becoming more skillful in managing core narratives in the mainstream media (MSM) by message-shaping source material given to the press.  They also limited journalists’ traditional and necessary access to sources and counter-narratives that could have provided a more accurate picture of military interventions. In particular, press access to battle situations in the Iraq War was managed by embedding the press in military units and restricting their access to battle areas. This tactic of “information warfare” continues today. As Patrick Lawrence has noted, coverage of the Ukraine war is even more tautly managed, with journalists limited to the equivalent of guided tours in war zones designed to shape the information gathering stage of the journalistic process.

When we factor in the major media consolidation and corporatization that’s taken place over the last 20 years — let’s call it the Rupert Murdoch effect – it’s even easier to understand that press coverage of US military policies and interventions has become increasingly more skewed towards war narratives designed to rally public support.  Editorial and journalist staff cuts taking place over the last twenty years or so as the result of media consolidation and competition from Big Tech media have also been huge factors contributing to more superficial and dumbed down coverage of military actions and US foreign policy decisions used to justify it.

Pushing Back by Developing Counter-narratives

A key aspect of peace action initiatives involves mounting efforts to counter these skewed narratives. While many news organizations seem deeply entrenched in their inability to present the wider picture of emerging news developments in Ukraine and Taiwan by uncritically parroting officially sanctioned views, it’s important to let these organizations know that the public is watching and aware of poorly crafted and/or lopsided reporting. The poster child for such reporting, of course, is the New York Times’ now infamous blithe and sing-song acceptance of the Bush/Cheney “weapons of mass destruction” narrative leading up to the Iraq war.

Sending letters to the editor represents one simple and effective way of pushing back. In this context, several MAPA-related efforts might serve as useful illustrations and real-world examples. Here in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe remains the most influential publication statewide, but it also weighs in on matters of national importance. Generally speaking, the Globe has been supportive of US military policies and actions affecting both Ukraine and Taiwan. This isn’t terribly surprising given the fact that Massachusetts is one of the top ten states benefiting economically from an extensive industrial base of defense R&D and manufacturing companies who, no doubt, are not shy about making their voices heard on Beacon Hill. There has been speculation that this might also include military-funded biodefense efforts implemented within the state’s booming biotechnology and life sciences sector.

Two Case Studies to Consider

I’d like to offer a few case studies of MAPA efforts to move the needle on corporate media narratives. On September 4, the Globe published an editorial approved by the full editorial board which essentially ratified US defense policy in Taiwan and made a case for additional weapons funding other than what Congress initially allocated. The editorial, titled “It’s time for a firm shift in our policy toward China”, quoted David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, complaining that “arming Ukraine is taking up almost the entirety of our defense-industrial base”, with the Globe editors chiming in to say: “The effort here, then, needs to be to assess what Taiwan needs to defend itself against a Chinese invasion and focus on ensuring it has those weapons”.

Joseph Gerson, a key contributor to MAPA efforts and President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, sent a letter to the Globe that was edited down by the paper and published as follows:

Attempts to make China conform to US systems will fail

Policies designed to discipline Beijing in order make it conform to the US hegemonic system are bound to fail. They will drive the two superpowers closer to what has been termed the “avoidable” and certainly disastrous war.

With humanity facing two existential threats, US-Chinese confrontations and the inability to cooperate accelerate [sic] humanity’s march toward nuclear Armageddon and climate catastrophe. The former, exacerbated by provocative US and Chinese military actions around Taiwan and the South China Sea, could trigger escalation to the unthinkable as a result of an accident, incident, or miscalculation.

While Beijing is anything but blameless, the Trump and Biden administrations’ arrogance of power and humiliating approaches to China, compounded by reckless Congressional actions, have brought us closer to calamity. Their campaigns to eliminate the One China policy that has been the foundation of Taiwanese and Northeast Asian peace since the normalization of US-Chinese relations in 1979 has been especially dangerous. Compromise is essential, as China will inevitably resist bringing Taiwan completely into the US sphere. 

Independently of that, I also sent a letter, that was published as follows:

Why exaggerate the threat posed by China?

In your recent editorial, you state that China had a “pyrotechnic temper tantrum” over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan. However, there were many responsible commentators in the United States on the left who expressed grave concerns over Pelosi’s visit as only serving to inflame tensions in US-China relations. Her visit was a controversial one politically, and even President Biden initially urged her not to make the visit.

Why is the Globe advocating for military solutions by exaggerating the threat posed by China? Professor Jeffery Sachs at Columbia University, who has served as adviser to three UN Secretaries-General, has pointed out that “since 1980, the US has been in at least 15 overseas wars of choice (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Panama, Serbia, Syria, and Yemen just to name a few), while China has been in none.”

US policy makers need to pivot away from the temptation to use military might to protect our strategic and economic interests in an increasingly multipolar world. We cannot afford to reflexively revert to our past unipolar dominance solely through the US use of military power when global conflicts arise. The American public is weary of forever wars with so many other priorities knocking at the door including the climate crisis, a failing health care system, severe economic distress, housing problems, and other huge issues needing attention.

Case Study: Washington Post Editors Looking the Other Way

I’d like to offer one other example. One of the responsibilities of opinion page editors is to fact check articles sent by outside contributors. Clearly, this did not happen with respect to an op-ed piece that appeared in the Washington Post on September 26, 2022. The article was written by Joseph Cirincione, the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, and titled “Putin says nuclear threat is no bluff. We should take him at his word”.

In one of the opening paragraphs, Cirincione stated “We should believe Putin that ‘this is not a bluff.’” The first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict is an integral part of Russian military doctrine, as it is in U.S. war plans. Unlike the United States, Russia regularly practices for the use of nuclear weapons and integrates them into its conventional military exercises, most recently just before Putin‘s invasion.”

The fact that the US does not perform nuclear simulations is misleading if not patently false. I consulted with several members of MAPA’s No Cold War working group who were especially knowledgeable in this area. A specific charter of the group is to expose and counter press narratives that offer inaccurate or skewed narratives in support of US military policy and actions. They unearthed solid research links that disproved Cirincione’s contention. A letter was then sent to the Washington Post to correct the error and it included the research and links collaboratively developed in the group.

A Simple Way to Move the Needle

Letters to the editor remain an important tool in the peace activist’s outreach toolkit that can be used to let corporate media know that skewed, sloppy, or unprofessional reporting and/or opinion about US military strategies and actions is simply not acceptable to their readership. Letters to the Boston Globe can be sent using letter@globe.com. Letters to the Washington Post should be sent to letters@washpost.com. Publications most always have guidelines they prefer and these can usually be found by scrolling to the bottom of the web site under “Contact us”.

— Tom Valovic is a journalist and the author of Digital Mythologies (Rutgers University Press), a series of essays that explored emerging social and political issues raised by the advent of the Internet. He has served as a consultant to the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Tom has written about politics and the effects of technology on society for a variety of publications including Common Dreams, Scheerpost, AlterNet, Counterpunch, Columbia University’s Media Studies Journal, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Examiner, and others. Tom is a longtime member of MAPA and is currently a member of several working groups.