Sometimes the modern world can be surreal.
I spent most of last week playing host to a friend in Nashville, Tennessee, showing her the sights and sounds — and best restaurants — of the city. One evening, after we got back from the movies, we both looked down at our phones to catch up on texts and news alerts.
The tone of those alerts caused both of us to raise an eyebrow at each other — the headlines about the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani sounded dire.
We joked to each other that you’d think news outlets everywhere, from CNN to the Associated Press, thought the U.S. had just entered World War III. And later, watching the evening coverage of Iran’s missile launch into Iraq, targeting U.S. bases, you’d indeed think we had entered a new global conflict.
We hadn’t entered such a conflict, of course. Early signs suggest that this may have been one of the most successful deterrence strikes the United States has made in years.
But the way the media covered both the U.S. and Iranian actions was akin to them running around like chickens with their heads cut off. And now, we’re all looking around like Marvin the Martian in the classic Looney Tunes cartoon asking: “Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!” The phone alerts primed everyone for “WAR” in all caps and exclamation points.
It’s surreal that we can even joke about such a thing. I get that hyperbole is part of the American political lexicon; we enjoy talking about how something is the worst thing ever, and how a political opponent is somehow “literally Hitler” — I mean, Godwin’s law exists for a reason.
Indeed, a few years back, there was a joke in conservative circles about all of the people and things liberals had said would die if net neutrality was defeated. (Democratic politicians and activities had alleged that everything from “Netflix and chill” to the internet itself would be quashed as a result of net neutrality getting the boot.)
None of these dire predictions happened, of course. It’s all basic scaremongering. But scaremongering is an entirely different animal when you’re talking about military action between countries.
When that occurs, you can’t engage in fear-mongering or hyperbole. It’s essential to get the facts straight and not pass along unverified reports.
The fog of war is a genuine thing, whether you’re in actual conflict or not. Disinformation campaigns by foreign actors, aiming to confuse and use media outlets for their benefit, is a real thing that occurs. Still, the American media, a sector that screams “fake news” and “Russian agitprop” over any story they don’t like, eagerly repeated Iranian propaganda to their audiences.
From the U.S. airstrikes that killed Qassem Soleimani to the Iranian response that targeted military bases in Iraq, there was one constant: the media’s willingness to repeat Iranian lies that cast the Trump administration in a negative light.
It doesn’t really matter if you agree or disagree with any of Trump’s decisions. It should go without saying that American media shouldn’t find itself in its own “Bagdad Bob” debacle.
Iranian propaganda and disinformation efforts aren’t a new concept for the media; they’ve known about it for some time. In fact, WIRED magazine did an extensive exposé on Iran’s disinformation network across the world, comparing it to what the Russians did in 2016.
The critical difference, according to WIRED, was that while Russians primarily played both sides of the aisle to sow discord and chaos, Iran was far more one-sided:
In the U.S., Russians posed as both Trump supporters and Bernie bros, the Iran-linked websites and pages pushed explicitly anti-Trump content, seizing on hashtags like #Resist, #LockHimUp, and #NotMyPresident. Though Facebook found some accounts dating back to 2011, much of the network FireEye discovered seems to have been created in early 2017, after Trump assumed office.
At the height of the Russia collusion news cycle, if anyone — left or right — said something in line with what the Russians had floated out in their covert efforts, the media immediately charged them with agreeing with Russian propaganda.
If the press applied that same standard here, they’d have to answer for why they’re spreading propaganda instead of standing with America.
To be sure, I’m not saying that any criticism of Trump is Iranian propaganda; there are many valid criticisms one could make of the administration. But if your criticisms of the White House cause you to repeat all Iranian talking points, with little pushback, you might want to start rethinking your priorities.
And even when the media isn’t repeating propaganda, we’re still left with hyperbolic claims of a third World War — claims that caused me to stop and share a mystified glance with my friend while we caught up on the news.
The danger to all of this lousy and hyperbolic journalism — which ended up causing the Selective Service website to crash from so many Americans anxious over draft eligibility — is that eventually, you get to the point of the boy who cried wolf.
In the fog of war, you need a clear head. The media didn’t show that at any point in their recent coverage.
War is, unfortunately, an indelible part of human history, and there’s little to suggest we’ll be rid of it any time soon. It’s important for the media to start reporting accurately — and not in ways that inflame fear.