Syria, War and the Democratic Demands of Journalism

Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a military strike on Syria is a critical moment for our nation, and our nation’s media. It is a realignment of executive power, which has for years been expanding, especially in terms of international affairs, surveillance and national security. And it is a reassertion of the role of citizens in a self-governing democracy.

The president made clear that his decision was not just a matter of involving lawmakers, but also involving the nation in this decision. “I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” he said on Saturday. In calling on Congress to take up this debate he is also calling on the American people to make their voices heard.

While he asserted his right to move forward without a Congressional vote, he argued, “The country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual.”

In a moment of such profound consequence, what is the role and responsibility of journalists? If we are to have a meaningful debate about our next steps in Syria, what do we need from our media to facilitate that?

syriaNot long after President Obama’s announcement we learned that Secretary of State John Kerry would be doing five Sunday talk shows on Sunday morning to make the administration’s case to the American people. This is one role the media can play, but hopefully it won’t be the only one. These are the same stages where the war in Iraq was sold.

Indeed, the media’s role in the lead up to the war in Iraq has loomed large in the escalating conflict in Syria. “The war drums have started beating even louder in recent days,” writes Michael Calderone in the Huffington Post, “as unnamed government officials have made the administration’s case for intervention through the media, a strategy that also evokes the run-up to war a decade ago.”

Calderone traces how the media’s coverage this time around has shown more restraint and skepticism and quotes a memo from Ted Bridis, the AP’s investigative editor. Bridis encouraged reporters to “dive deep into questions about quantifying and understanding the U.S. government’s justification for military intervention in Syria, which increasingly seems inevitable.”

Secretary of State Kerry’s media blitz on Sunday illustrates how hard the administration is going to push to get their message out through the media. Other signs include the steep uptick Syria related information coming from official leaks and anonymous sources. In “The mood music that led pretty much every media outlet to say confidently that the US was on the brink of military action came courtesy of an ensemble of unofficial sources,” writes Paul Lewis in The Guardian.

When the vast resources of government are being turned toward waging a public campaign of this sort, journalists must do more than provide a vehicle for administration talking points. Unfortunately, especially on the Sunday morning talk shows, this is too often the default. Regardless of what you think about military intervention in Syria, we should expect and demand that journalists push back hard on the official government line. While we’ve seen more push back in the White House briefing room, asking hard questions is just one part of what our nation needs right now.

The Syrian conflict is complex – a true wicked problem – and if we are going to have a real public debate about these issue we need newsrooms to help explain the context of the crisis we face right now. We need a better sense of the history of the place and the conflict, the players and the evidence we have. We need to wrap our heads around the global systems of power influencing our position. We need expert analysis and we need to hear from Syrian’s themselves.

There are more than two sides and two solutions to this crisis. This isn’t a choice between attacking or doing nothing, but it would be easy to report it as such, to boil it down to a false dichotomy. What are the various kinds of military intervention we might pursue? What options exist outside of military force? We  need to understand the full range of potential solutions and actions.

We need a media that helps us answer these (and many other) questions. We need a media that helps facilitate a respectful and reasoned dialogue. We need a media that amplifies the voices of local people not just government officials.

Jay Rosen has described the journalism industry’s performance in the lead up to the Iraq invasion as “the biggest press failure in the post WW II era.” Congress is expected to reconvene on September 9 – although they could return to DC earlier – and vote soon after on the authorization. We have just over a week. How newsrooms use that week will tell us a lot about the role of journalism in our democracy today.

What do you think the media needs to do, what questions do they need to ask, what information do you need to know? Add your thoughts to the comments below.


(Image of violence in Syria mapped by the UN via FreedomHouse, used under creative commons license)


  1. Josh Stearns says:

    Below is a list of some useful explainers, blogs, and articles. Please add others in the comment section:

    WNYC: Explainer: What’s Going On In Syria, By Jennifer Vanasco

    Washington Post: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask, by Max Fisher

    Syria Deeply: Syria: The Executive Summary, 09/03

    The Atlantic: Syria Reader

    Al Jazeera America: Explainer: Military intervention in Syria. Answering the essential questions regarding a possible intervention in Syria

    The New Republic: A Guide to Syria’s Best Citizen Journalism, by Nora Caplan-Bricker

    Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Syria opposition parties: Explained, by Suheil Damouny and Emily Benammar

    Washington Post: A brief history of key military interventions by the United States

    General Syria Coverage. Please add others in the comment section:

    Guardian: Middle East Live Blog

    GLobal Post’s Syria Coverage by various authors

    Global Voices Syria Coverage by various authors

    Twitter lists curated by @digiphile and @fischerville and @max_fisher and @AntDeRosa

  2. Rob Bole says:

    Perhaps I am being overly optimistic, but the President’s decision in seeking authorization for military action is an opportunity to reset or at least have an alternative model in the way In which the United States utilizes military action. It is a moment where the President acknowledged that the US is the worlds-oldest constitutional democracy and that must mean something in how we expend treasure and take lives abroad. (Actually the use of the phrase of “worlds oldest constitutional democracy” by a President in response to a crisis is worth some parsing on its own: acknowledgement that we need to lead by values and not only action; we are the “worlds oldest” at something in its self is pretty interesting…)

    However, the moment of reflection and reset before we take lives overseas will be blunted if we don’t have a press that is cognizant of their role at this point. At the moment I am hoping we move past horse race that political journalism and op-ed writers find themselves conforming to for all coverage related to government. Is there much value in an article like this?

    JC Sterns asked some very important questions in this post, but to quickly peel the onion a bit more, I would offer two thoughts.

    1) Op-Ed writers have a first duty of untangling the complexity of the question of the US’s role in responding to the apparent attacks. What is the role of the weapons treaties? What has changed in Presidential authorization to use the military since 9-11? How is this issue related to Middle East politics? In untangling the complexity they would do a great service if they laid out the opposing viewpoints before rendering judgement. But render they must; the Op-Ed and “strategists” help provide the American people with the arguments at the dinner table and water cooler, which are the building blocks of an informed and engaged society. The caution is that jumping to the argument before leading the public through the issues wit educational lenses is a plain disservice to the role of an opinionated press in our civil society.

    2) Political journalists who cover the decision-makers or write the explainers have the opportunity to practice a core question of their profession by asking the question “why?” of our representatives as they debate this measure. In the linked Politico article the horse race is king, which needs to be muted at this moment. We need to build the articles around the thinking and rationale of the serious men and women’s who we have chosen to represent us. And if their reasoning is lacking in public perhaps they will rethink the issue (or read some of the good Op-Ed writing.). The American public needs to understand what their representatives are thinking, why they are thinking it and what are the consequences of any subsequent decisions.

    It IS overly optimistic to believe that we will take a step forward in being a fully informed and engaged electorate at this moment. However, it is not too optimistic to believe that a press that leans into the moment of a rich and robust debate in the Capitol cannot help improve that debate. And in doing so helps improve how we as a nation take on important questions of national security.

  3. Pete says:

    Uattributed stories/rumors of Saudi intelligence role in gas attacks. (For example, see CNN reporter said via Twitter they are looking into it. Not easy Just two reporters in Syria. ( No shortage of expats with a horse in the race, op-ed writers, commentators in neighboring countries relying on relayed information. Not a good situation for informed consent.

  4. Pete says:

    Good info at Institute for Study of War Syria blog: Note fundamental contradiction in their mission statement: “We are committed to improving the nation’s ability to execute military operations and respond to emerging threats in order to achieve U.S. strategic objectives. ISW is a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organization.”

  5. Josh Stearns says:

    Via Twitter @kgosztola adds that journalist should:

    1) Explore how there are non-military options for responding to chemical attacks or atrocities in addition to what would happen after strikes
    2) Media should consult humane rights org publications when doing coverage
    3) Finally, confront framing that firing missiles on targets not full-blown war like Iraq, Libya. Based in law, history or pure propaganda?

    He recommends this CIVIC report? “Syria: Minimizing Civilian Harm During Military Intervention”

    1. Pete says:

      CIVIC report contains fundamental flaw that renders conclusion about air strikes moot. They discuss arming the “opposition” as though it were monolithic, which it is assuredly not. See If this is the same level of analysis the White House is using, we’re in trouble.

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