Brooke on the Press in Times of War
Micah Loewinger Hey, this is Micah Loewinger and you're listening to the On the Media podcast Extra. This week will mark the one year anniversary of Putin's full scale invasion of Ukraine. We've dissected the war in a number of ways, but this week we wanted to zoom out and look at wartime journalism more broadly. The interview you're about to hear, which originally aired in spring 2022, was conducted at the American Academy in Rome by Mark Hanna. He's a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and a self-professed WTM fanboy. The interviewees are Brooke and her husband, Fred Kaplan. Brooke was on a fellowship at the academy when this was recorded. Here's Mark Hannah.
Mark Hannah It's 1854. The Crimean War is in full swing. It's a fight which pitted Russia against the Ottoman Empire. But it's drawn in some European powers, France and England. London Times reporter William Howard Russell was on the front lines covering everything he saw.
Brooke Gladstone He wrote about it with a great deal of passion and immediacy, he said. At 11:10, they swept proudly past glittering in the morning sun, in all the pride and splendor of war. At 11:35, not a single British soldier, except the dead and the dying were left in front of the Muscovite guns. He writes about the soldiers being ill fed the ill led and left to die on the field.
Mark Hannah Brooke says that the pictorial press was brand new, and while what Russell was writing and photographing about the Light Brigade was all exemplary journalism, it was not necessarily the most flattering picture for England. His reporting turned public opinion against the government, and Prince Albert, his patron, was not happy.
Brooke Gladstone Now, Russell has been hailed as the father of war reporting. That's not how he put it, though. He said that he was the miserable parent of a luckless tribe. And that's because he saw firsthand what speaking the truth in the face of government resistance would do. Since then, the press, as it has evolved, has not only the government to contend with, but their direct employers and public opinion itself.
Mark Hannah The war ended in 1856 with the Treaty of Paris, and Russia did not come out on top. Now, fast forward to today and Russia is again at war. I asked Brooke's husband, Fred Kaplan, the author of Slate's War Stories column and a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author himself, whether he was surprised by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. After all, the former Soviet Union had been a sort of humbled power. They had been chastened and militarily disabled to some extent. So while Russia is still a powerful country in many respects, it seemed to many that after its Cold War defeat story had ended. But we know now that that's really not the whole story.
Fred Kaplan I'd written a column saying that now Russia is not going to invade because they've never done anything like this before. They don't know how to do multipronged offensive invasions. Their logistics are terrible. Their supply lines are cut off. Their junior officers aren't trying to take initiative. So if something goes wrong, it'll really be messed up. So that's why they're not going to do it. Probably my analysis was correct, but they did it anyway. That was a surprising thing for me. The thing about this war and the media, that that makes things very confusing. And I think we all, including people who write about it every day, have strangely mixed feelings is because, first of all, first, I think this is the only war that I can think of anyway, that we that the United States and American media have paid a lot of attention to, that we are not actually directly fighting in. I mean, it's our side, but we're not really we're providing the weapons, but not anything else that's new.
Mark Hannah For anybody paying even a little bit of attention. It's clear that Russia's invasion of Ukraine has attracted saturation coverage. Escalation on and off the Ukraine battlefield today.
TAPE The Russian missiles slammed into the ground only meters away from this block of flats. Vladimir Putin flew to the country's far east to meet his Belarussian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, as the conflict in Ukraine enters its third month. The United Nations secretary general has embarked on a diplomatic mission to Moscow.
Mark Hannah But that doesn't mean we're getting the full picture. Between the Crimean War and the invasion of Ukraine, now nearly 200 years of history, war journalism has transformed significantly. But what these two areas have in common may be more interesting than what. It sets them apart, which is the media have a deeply complicated relationship with covering war stories.
Fred Kaplan We have some reporters there. There's almost no American reporters in Donbas, the eastern region where the major fighting is going on now. So we're relying a lot on information from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which has undoubtedly a certain propagandistic value. Nobody's even paying attention to what the Russian Ministry of Defense is saying and some scattered other intelligence that manages to be leaked and provided in Pentagon briefings and that sort of thing. And so you don't really quite like, for example, the Ukrainian. Defense Ministry says they've killed 25,000 Russian soldiers. I have no idea if that's true. U.S. intelligence is estimating about 15,000, which itself is remarkable. I mean, for war that's been going on for a couple of months, I mean, that's about as many as they lost in Afghanistan in ten years.
Mark Hannah So what do we believe? How do we know and what are the forces at work shaping the story you hear as news consumers were confronted with those questions? Any time we read an article or watch the nightly news. We're not alone in that. The media institutions which share the news and distribute the news and report the news are grappling with the exact same questions. And as Brooke and Fred explain, there are no simple answers.
Brooke Gladstone I think the entire press corps is coping with a lot of new things. In the post-Trump era, the consensus has broken down. There is a. Deep understanding or at least a lingering suspicion that the system doesn't work, that objectivity is a mirage. And then you have to start. Story selection and coverage according to a set of values that you have to acknowledge and choose. Otherwise, there's no way to triage. You can't just do it as a group anymore. It still happens, of course, everywhere, all the time. And in media outlets, whether they're legacy outlets, are crazy, you know, wingnut outlets on the fringe, it's it's going to be the same. There'll be consensus of opinion among political groups, which was something at the dawn of American newspapering. There certainly was. It's just that people took lots of newspapers at one time and now they really only consume a few news outlets. So I think that this has really put people in a quandary. William Butler Yeats once said, I hate journalists. They're the most shallow people on the planet. They embrace the great refusal That was the circle of hell that Dante reserved for people who refused to take a stand. I bring them up because to me, this characterizes very much the public's ambivalence with media. On the other hand, a very important poem penned in the wake of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution took very strongly. Another position that deeply held conviction actually leads to mayhem. Maybe you've heard this poem turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart. The center cannot hold. Anarchy is loosed upon the world. The blood dimmed, tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Also, William Butler Yeats. I mean, goddammit, pick a side. And the thing is, is that he's sort of in those juxtapositions of those two quotes. He he sums up most media consumers relationship with the press, which is that objectivity is wherever you happen to stand at the moment where one person sees moral courage. Another person sees palpable bias. Bias is a big part of the discussion of the media always.
Mark Hannah Well, let's get into that then, because you have I mean, and for people who haven't already picked up books book, but there's a chapter in it about war. And in that chapter, you you mention that, you know, the bias biases that plague media and journalism and reporting and people's consumption of that, I think are like the whole panoply of biases are present in war reporting.
Brooke Gladstone In speak of the ones that matter are really not the political ones.
Mark Hannah There is.
Brooke Gladstone Additionally.
Mark Hannah Tendency toward negativity, tendency towards sensational. So talk about those by which which biases are so prevalent and how do they distort our perception of of war and what is to be done about it?
Brooke Gladstone Yeah, there's there's commercial bias. It has to be new. That's why there are so few stories that go back to recover. What happened after the event is over. We see that with almost every natural disaster and lots of unnatural disasters as well. Huge headline stories. They don't ever go back. They figure the public is no longer interested. That's commercial bias. There's bad news bias. We are always, always focused on the thing that presents a threat. We're wired that way. Crime is overcovered. As a result, we think the world is far more dangerous than it actually is. Status quo bias. That means a belief that the system works. This is how it is most often expressed. And as a result, people don't want to change things unless the benefits are huge. Otherwise the risks are too great. Access bias is a huge one. You really want to keep your the lines of communication open with your sources in Washington. This is very much of a Washington thing, obviously. But, you know, Izzy Stone just read documents. Is he Stone being the the great investigative reporter who almost never did interviews with sources. He just did close reading of the documents. That's very rare today. And it's almost worthless because you almost never get anything useful. But access bias keeps people within the straight and narrow. If you piss off your sources, you won't get them to talk.
Mark Hannah And in wartime, that access is typically given by officials and military. And if you if you present, you know, that official position and then a dissenting opinion. From civil society, you're not going to get that access.
Brooke Gladstone Oh, in war it is. It's much more intense than that. It can it can mean your life. I mean, when you are embedded with a troop, you will fall in love with them because they're lovely young people. But also they they are protecting you. And you see the risks they face. This is what they call war through a soda straw. It was a brilliant innovation. But it you know, that is the most extreme form of access bias. There's visual bias. Obviously, war provides amazing pictures. And is it it really sacrifices context for constant action, whether it's the latest bombing or in previous conflicts, the latest beheading or the IED or the crying children. Abu Ghraib was known about was covered by not an obscure publication. I think Newsweek and The Washington Post, you know, a year and a half before it became a story, you needed the person standing on the box with the hood on the head. Then it became a story. And that's not a small thing. There's narrative bias.
Mark Hannah That's real quick. While we're talking about visual bias, I mean, talk about Vietnam actually being the first televised war and that that was evocative and probably created some public pressure in a way that is still photographs did.
Brooke Gladstone It did create public pressure. It isn't. The media, however, I do not believe is what ended the Vietnam War, although many in the Pentagon still believe that it did. I'll just say about narrative bias this war is perfect for it because it's about stories, it's about narratives, it's about characters. It's it you know, what isn't good for narrative storytelling? Science. Science is horrible.
Mark Hannah And also moral relativity or relativism, rather, And the idea that a narrative requires victims and villains and heroes and right sort of presents the world in this Manichean, black and white way when the bad guys grievances aren't going to be really grappled with in the American media, whether that's the Taliban or Russia.
Brooke Gladstone It's it's it is very difficult. And right now we don't have anyone reporting from the Russian side. You don't have to love the Russians to be interested in what's going on over there. You know, So there's definitely the narrative bias. And of course, all of the oh, there's one other one, which is the one that actually is the only one that isn't emphasized and engaged in thoroughly in war. And this is something that is unique to the American media. Even though journalists lean politically left, their stories, selection is no different from conservative stories selection. And that is where bias first rears its head. It's the most important thing. And they also interview, by and large, far more right wing or conservative people on television and even in the press than they do middle and left wing ones. And this is part of the bending over backwards in in order to be fair, fairness, bias really distorts coverage in general. And it is and it is, however, pretty much disengaged when it comes to war.
Fred Kaplan Yeah, I would add one more bias. Sure. I'm not sure why this. Well, I have a theory on why this is the case, but have you ever watched cable news? Whatever's going on, you might notice that there are incapable of covering more than, like two stories in the course of the day. And now it's even one story. And I think the reason is that people are glued to the TV because they're interested in the major news of the day and then have, you know, if they're watching CNN and they say, okay, now let's go over and watch, see what's going on in Los Angeles for this fire. Then people will flick the dial. And so instead they just present one panel. They don't have anybody reporting news. And they they've cut back on that budget over the years. They just have one panel after another talking about the same damn thing, just five different people. And and I think if you see the same thing on TV all day long, no matter when you turn it on, you might get an exaggerated sense of that story's importance. And I think without cable news, would we really be thinking that the war in Ukraine is as important as we do now?
Mark Hannah I'm not I'm not sure. And this is why I wanted to ask when I asked before why America is why I asked you a follow up question. It wasn't about why America's not involved in Ukraine, but why is America care about Ukraine when there are other conflicts going on in the world? And I think but I think you're hitting on something important, which is the sort of sense that that, you know. The access and visibility of this war and the fact that there are Western cameras there and there is great fodder for these cable news panel discussions, brings it to the foreground, sells, you know, copies of The New York Times. And in this kind of attention economy that you were talking about earlier, Brooke, captures our attention. You know, there was famously this this idea of the CNN effect in Bosnia and in media theory. That's the idea that, you know, Bill Clinton want to go intervene in Bosnia, didn't want NATO's to intervene and and didn't for a very long time, but only when CNN continued to cover this so incessantly and only when the images of human suffering, humans that looked like a lot of Americans and we can talk about that if we want, that there was a political pressure applied to Clinton to to alleviate that suffering and to get involved.
Speaker 5 Come here. Come here. This little boy is pleading for his mother. As bad as this is, those even worse off had to stay behind. Too weak to make the long journey out. The commander of all U.N. forces in former Yugoslavia has sent a message to the Serbs, calling what happened in Srebrenica an atrocity. Another official calls it criminal lunacy. Yet another says these people are faced with a terrible choice. You shipped out like cattle or slaughtered like sheep.
Mark Hannah And whether or not that was successful, it certainly stopped Milosevic. And but today, looking back, Bosnia is almost a failed state again. Whether that intervention was merited or not really wasn't sort of a clear eyed appraisal of American interests. It became there was a humanitarian imperative to fight in in such a visual and sort of persistent media culture. You want to talk about that, Brooke?
Brooke Gladstone Sure. In Ukraine, there is something truly unique. I know that's not grammatical, something unique, which is Zelinski, a performer of consummate skill with a staff of producers and writers and comics and people who know how to tell stories and move the public, all providing daily. This is this is different from videos of the smart bombs in the first Gulf War, which was amazing to see. Right. And gave us many misimpressions of how accurate our armaments actually were. But in this case, you have an utterly telegenic hero who even dances the tango in spangled red outfits. Nevertheless, he is sort of recognizably a person that is embraceable and and he is telling his story. I mean, it is very rare that the West has been open to. I can't think of another case. I mean, de Gaulle or maybe Winston Churchill. I don't know. I cannot think of another case of a foreign leader captivating the American media and the American public in and governments around the world with his little zoom visits the way that he has. I do think that that there's also obviously let us not overlook the, you know, the racial element of this. I mean, we it has oft been pointed out that there have been horrible things happening all around the world. And and it is this one we focused on. And it is true that in some in some narratives, this could change the world order and challenge the status quo. That is a very big deal, unconsciously and consciously. But I do think that this is the most potent information war we've ever had.
Mark Hannah Halfway through the discussion, Brooke and Fred fielded questions from the audience, and here are a few that stood out to us. First, listeners wanted to know about this status quo bias that is one's preference for things to stay the same. How do journalists deal with status quo bias? Are they rewarded or punished for criticizing the government's decisions, for example.
Brooke Gladstone In terms of status quo bias? That's what makes us patriots during a time of war. That's what makes us inclined to believe our government. And that's what often puts the media in the doghouse, the responsible media with the public. I mean, there's rarely there have been very few all out wars that we've been involved with that hasn't begun, at least in part with a lie. You know, the sinking of the Maine in the the Lusitania, the Gulf of. In weapons of mass destruction. These have always been the way in. And if press. If the press raises an eyebrow, they come in for tremendous opprobrium. And it's you know, they shouldn't want to be loved. You know, that's something Helen Thomas always said, I don't want to be loved. And it is true that although if you poll the press, they say the public will say, what I care most about is fairness and accuracy. But if you look at the popularity of the press at various periods, you'll see that sometimes where fairness and accuracy were at quite a low ebb. For instance, during Katrina, the the emotional support for the press still went sky high because of the tremendous umbrage expressed by Anderson Cooper and all those cable TV hosts, you know, laying into very irresponsible officials on the federal level and on the local level.
TAPE But joining me from Baton Rouge is Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. Senator, appreciate you joining us tonight. Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now? Anderson, there will be plenty time to discuss all of those issues about why and how and what and if. But Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA cross up and operating. Excuse me, Senator. I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that because for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi.
Brooke Gladstone It's not that they weren't doing a good job in expressing our feelings and trying to get answers, but they certainly were happy to report on children being raped in public places and sniping going on in places where they hadn't gone on a lot of real racist garbage that went unchallenged all through that.
TAPE The problem with looters? Not not any more. But you did drop dead. What happened? Shop. We saw a supermarket about 50, perhaps 75 people looting the supermarket, coming out of the supermarket with shopping carts absolutely filled to overflowing with everything they could get. So these kinds of situations, of course, can bring out both the good inhumanity and the bad.
Brooke Gladstone And it was a disgraceful time for the reporting of the American media, really. And it was at a really high ebb. The status quo bias, I think, has been chipped away by the Trump administration, at least in certain quarters of the American public. I do think that the shake up has has moved the the so-called Overton Window to a degree that it had been yanked all the way to the right. The Overton Window is what is what is basically in the mainstream of debate. And there was a time when questioning some of the tenets of capitalism and supporting vast public projects were outside the Overton window. It has slipped a little bit to the left, so those things can now be considered seriously. And that has been a big change lately. The Overton Window has been on a on a slider size.
Mark Hannah That is that Trump is, that Bernie Sanders.
Brooke Gladstone Is and that is initially my feeling is just Trump making us understand fundamentally that our status quo bias a belief that our institutions will save us and that the system worked, was hugely shaken. And that gave an opportunity for people like Bernie Sanders and many others to be heard. It's not like Bernie Sanders tremendously changed his message. He's been saying the exact same thing for a quarter of a century. Why is he being heard now? Well, it's generational, but it isn't just generational. A lot of these programs, like the ones that were passed during the pandemic, it also changed the status quo. These are things that happened, I think, because our country has been shaken by a lack of confidence in what we believed to be true.
Mark Hannah One attendee who works as a magazine photo editor asked about the bias which is created by the dissemination of photojournalism in the context of war. Is there a responsible way for the news media to disseminate photography, given the immense weight that these visual images carry in wartime?
Brooke Gladstone I'll just say quickly that I feel for you because I know how painful and difficult this is. I mean, there are laws against showing pictures of. People in the families haven't been notified. But beyond that, there are cultural mores here that are tremendously different from other places in the world. And I will not say that those places that show the grisly pictures somehow have less delicate feelings than we do or so forth. I just think that we think it's really icky and there are ways to show I mean, there were rules against showing flag draped coffins coming back from Iraq. You know, so it's not like, oh, my God, a family is going to be in pain. It was simply images of death. And I do think that was why for a while, The New York Times and other outlets were just listing names and so forth. It's it is it is an agonizing, moving target for someone like you who has to do that. And I, I mean, there's I think that's another example where your gut rules to the extent that you're allowed to let it rule, given that your employer's going to have a say in this, too.
Fred Kaplan I would say if it's combined with reporting about. Whether this picture, which might be sensational, also in some sense truly captures what's going on in the world. For example, Lynsey Addario is picture in the times of the mother and daughter lying dead on the road Ukrainian. You know, on the one hand, you could say, well, you know, people die in every war. I mean, this is a bit. But this was a war where there are no Russian civilian casualties and where Russia was actually deliberately bombing and shelling civilian targets, targets with no military, you know, significance whatsoever. So in that picture, I think did truly capture vividly one aspect. And in terms of whether to get involved in it may be a central aspect of the war. So in that sense, you know, I think I think that that was a fairly that was properly put in The New York Times.
Brooke Gladstone I think of some of the iconic pictures from Vietnam, the little girl running from napalm, the soldier being executed right in the spot. These pictures are seared in the mind and they need to be seen.
Mark Hannah The audience was also curious about the bias of commentators in the news media, this kind of access bias. It's been interesting, to say the least, that a lot of generals and government officials who are responsible to a large degree for these inconclusive and unsuccessful military adventures in the Middle East are now the people that bookers are looking to and putting back on air to suss out what's going on and what should be done in Ukraine.
Fred Kaplan It is really unclear to me why such a high percentage of the commentators on all the cable news networks are people are eight three and four star generals or sometimes less than that, but still generals and be people who really have guided us wrongly in previous wars.
Brooke Gladstone Can I just add to that very quickly? Something that is also appalling about the armchair generals is there's often, in fact, always no disclosure of their ties to defense industries. And almost all of them have those ties after leaving the service.
Fred Kaplan I mean, in this war, I do notice they have had on some people who just know a lot about Russia or a lot about Ukraine, and particularly Ukraine, because there aren't that many people who have been following Ukraine closely for many years. So and so they have done a bit of that. But still, when you get into the well, let's talk about what kinds of bombs are used for something like that. There's this heavy orientation toward hardware and toward battlefield results, some of which are ambiguous or completely unknown. But people speculate anyway. I don't know. It's it. It distorts and and distracts. It's a certain yes and distracts from the main question.
Brooke Gladstone So you're you've turned it into a video game. It is the narrowing of the focus to something that is pure action devoid of any context. You know, the the long panel tables of people who who aren't really connected with that can speculate. But it still seems just like our campaigns, everything is a sports enterprise now. And it's it is absolutely frustrating because certainly every election season people promise to do differently and they never do. I think that you have to just accept that there is bias, that we all are coming from some place and that we aren't journalists are not the tribe of passionless priests that they have often tried to present themselves as. I think that we have to begin with the understanding that we don't live without context, that we don't that we all use horrific heuristics and shortcuts to try and understand the world. If we accept that that's the case, then how do we make it more just and fair and truthful? I do think there is such a thing as simply being truthful in doubting yourself in a creative, productive way, and to understand that your choices are not immutable, that you might make a different choice another time.
Mark Hannah We hope you enjoyed listening to this conversation as much as we enjoyed hosting it. For me personally, as somebody who's gotten his doctorate in a journalism school, who's been a long time listener and fan of books listening to on the media for the past 20 years, this conversation was a special treat. Whatever you think about the media and the way it's become fragmented and transformed by new technologies, commercial pressures and political affinities, one thing is certain that as we decide as a country what's to be done and not to be done about Ukraine, and as we try to ascertain the ground truth in far flung places, journalists, producers and editors play a critical role in informing these decisions and in setting a public agenda. And if nothing else, this episode has helped you be a more critical consumer of and producer of news then our work here is done.
Micah Loewinger This interview originally aired as an episode of None of the Above, a podcast hosted by Mark Hannah and produced by the Eurasia Group Foundation. That's all for the Podcast Extra. Tune in this weekend for a show hosted by me and Brook, where we'll be exploring myths about money and markets. Thanks for listening. See you.