Katya Rogers: Hi, this is Katya, OTM Executive Producer for this week's On The Media Midweek Podcast. We're airing an interview conducted a couple of weeks ago at the American Academy in Rome. The interviewer is Mark Hannah, a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation, member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a self-professed OTM fanboy. The interviewees are Brooke and her husband, Fred Kaplan. Brooke was on a spring fellowship at the academy. Yes, that's where she's been for the last few weeks when they recorded this conversation about war and the media. 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 10 minutes past 11:00 they swept proudly past glittering in the morning sun and all the pride and splendor of war. At 35 minutes past 11:00, 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, 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 humbled power. They had been chastened and militarily disabled to some extent. While Russia is still a powerful country in many respects, it seemed to many that after its cold war defeat history had ended but we know now that that's really not the whole story.
Brooke Gladstone: I had written a column saying that Russia, they're 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 get cut off. Their junior officers aren't trained to take initiative. If something goes wrong, it'll really be messed up, so that's why they're not going to do it.
My analysis was correct but they did it anyway. That was the surprising thing for me. The thing about this war and media that makes things very confusing. I think we all including people who write about it every day, have strangely mixed feelings is because first of all, I think this is the only war that I can think of any way that the United States and American media have paid a lot of attention to that we are not actually directly fighting in. It's our side but 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.
Speaker: Escalation on and off the Ukraine Battlefield today.
Speaker: A Russian missile slammed into the ground only meters away from this block of flats.
Speaker: Vladimir Putin flew to the country's far east to meet his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko.
Speaker: As the conflict in Ukraine enters its third month, the United Nations Secretary-General has embarked on a diplomatic mission to Moscow.
Mark Hannah: 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, world journalism has transformed significantly but what these two eras have in common may be more interesting than what sets them apart which is the media have a deeply complicated relationship with covering war stories.
Brooke Gladstone: We have some reporters there, there's almost no American reporters in Donbas, the eastern region where the major fighting is going on now. 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 provide in the pentagon briefings and that sort of thing.
For example, the Ukrainian defense ministry says they've killed 25,000 Russian soldiers. I have no idea if that's true. US intelligence is estimating about 15,000 which itself is remarkable. For a war that's been going on for a couple of months, that's about as many as they lost in Afghanistan in 10 years.
Mark Hannah: What do we believe? How do we know? What are the forces at work shaping the story you hear? As news consumers, we're confronted with those questions anytime 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. As Brooke and Fred, explain, there are no simple answers.
Brooke Gladstone: I think the entire press core 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. 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 in media outlets, whether they're legacy outlets or crazy wing nut outlets on the fringe. 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. They certainly were. It is just that people took lots of newspapers at one time and now they really only consume a few news outlets. 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 a circle of hell that Dante reserved for people who refuse 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 World War I 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 in everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Also, William Butler Yeats, God dammit, pick a side. The thing is, is that he's in those juxtapositions of those two quotes. 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: Let's get into that then. For people who haven't already picked up Brooke's book, there's a chapter in it about war. In that chapter, you mention that the biases that plague media and journalism and reporting and people's consumption of that, I think the whole panoply of biases are present in war reporting in spades.
Brooke Gladstone: They're not political. The ones that matter are really not the political ones or not traditionally.
Mark Hannah: Their tendency towards negativity, tendency towards sensations. Talk about those, which biases are so prevalent and how do they distort our perception of war, and what is to be done about it?
Brooke Gladstone: Yes, 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 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. 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 the lines of communication open with your sources in Washington.
This is very much of a Washington thing obviously but Izzy Stone just read documents. Izzy Stone being 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. Access bias keeps people within the straighten narrow. If you piss off your sources you won't get them to talk.
Mark Hannah: In wartime that access is typically given by officials and military. If you present that official position and then a dissenting opinion from civil society you're not going to get that access.
Brooke Gladstone: In war, it's much more intense than that. It can mean your life. When you are embedded with a troop you will fall in love with them because they're lovely young people but also they are protecting you. You see the risks they face. This is what they call war through a soda straw. It was a brilliant innovation. That is the most extreme form of access bias. There's visual bias obviously war provides amazing pictures.
It really sacrifices context for constant action whether it's the latest bombing or in previous conflicts, the latest beheading or the IED or their crying children. Abu Ghraib was known about, was covered by not an obscure publication. I think Newsweek and the Washington Post, 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 that became a story. That's not a small thing. There's narrative bias.
Mark Hannah: Real quick while we're talking about visual bias talk about Vietnam actually being the first televised war. That was evocative and probably created some public pressure in a way that felt photographs did not.
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 biases war is perfect for it because it's about stories. It's about narratives. It's about characters what isn't good for narrative storytelling? Science. Science is horrible.
Mark Hannah: Also, moral relativity or relativism rather. The idea that a narrative requires victims and villains and heroes and that presents the world in this Manichean black and white way. When the bad guy's grievances aren't going to be really grappled with in the American media whether that's the Taliban or Russia.
Brooke Gladstone: It is very difficult. 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. There's definitely the narrative bias. Of course, 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. This is something that is unique to the American media even though journalists lean politically left their story selection is no different from conservative story selection.
That is where bias first rears its head. It's the most important thing. They also interview by and large far more right-wing or conservative people on television. Even in the press then they do middle and left-wing ones. This is part of the bending over backwards in order to be fair, fairness bias really distorts coverage in general. It is however pretty much disengaged when it comes to war.
Fred Kaplan: 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 if you ever watch cable news whatever's going on you might notice that they're incapable of covering more than two stories in the course of the day. Now it's even one story. I think the reason is that people are glued to the TV because they're interested in the major news of the day. Then if they're watching CNN and they say, "Now let's go over and see what's going on in Los Angeles for this fire." Then people will flick the dial.
Instead they just present one panel and they don't have anybody reporting news and they've cut back on that budget over the years. They just have one panel after another talking about the same thing just five different people. 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. I think without cable news would we really be thinking that the war in Ukraine is as important as we do now? I'm not sure.
Mark Hannah: This is why I wanted to ask when I asked before why America's-- why I asked you a follow-up question. It wasn't about why America's not involved in Ukraine but why does America care about Ukraine when there are other conflicts going on in the world? I think you're hitting on something important which is the sense that the access and the visibility of this war and the fact that there are Western cameras there is great fodder for these cable news panel discussions brings it to the foreground. Sells copies of the New York times.
In this attention economy that you were talking about earlier Brooke captures our attention. There was famously this idea of this CNN effect in Bosnia. In media theory, that's the idea that Bill Clinton didn't want to go intervene in Bosnia. Didn't want NATO to intervene. Didn't for a very long time but only when CNN continued to cover this incessantly. Only when the images of humans suffering humans that looked like a lot of Americans. We can talk about that if we want. That there was political pressure applied to Clinton to alleviate that suffering and to get involved.
Speaker: "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 UN forces in former Yugoslavia has sent a message to the Serbs calling what happened in south Bosnia an atrocity. Another official calls it criminal lunacy. Yet another says these people are faced with a terrible choice. He shipped out like cattle or slaughtered like sheep.
Mark Hannah: Whether or not that was successful, it certainly stopped Milošević. Today looking back Bosnia is almost a failed state again whether that intervention was merited or not really wasn't a clear eye appraisal of American interests. It became, there was a humanitarian imperative to fight in such a visual and persistent media culture. Do 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 Zelenskyy 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 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.
In this case, you have an utterly telegenic hero who even dances the tango in spangled red outfits. Nevertheless, he is recognizably a person that is embraceable and he is telling his story. It is very rare that the West has been open to I can't think of another case. Gael 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 there's also, obviously, let us not overlook the racial element of this. I mean, it has opt been pointed out that there have been horrible things happening all around the world.
It is this one we focused on and it is true that in some narratives, this could change the world order and challenge the status quo. That is a very big deal, unconsciously and consciously. 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. 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 time of war. That's what makes us inclined to believe our government. 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. The sinking of the Maine and the Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin weapons of mass destruction. These have always been the way in.
If the press raises an eyebrow, they come in for tremendous opprobrium. It's, they shouldn't want to be loved. That's something Helen Thomas always said, "I don't want to be loved." It is true that although if you pull the press, they say the public will say, what I care most about is fairness and accuracy. 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 emotional support for the press still went sky-high because of the tremendous umbrage expressed by Anderson Cooper and all those cable TV hosts laying into very irresponsible officials on the federal level and on the local level.
Anderson: Joining me from Baton Rouge is Louisiana Senator, Mary Landrieu. Senator, I appreciate you joining us tonight. Does the federal government bear responsibility for what is happening now? Should they apologize for what is happening now?
Senator Maryland Andrew: Anderson, there will be plenty of time to discuss all of those issues about why and how and what, and if. Congress is going to an unprecedented session to pass a $10 billion supplemental bill tonight to keep FEMA and the Red Cross up and operating.
Anderson: 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.
Speaker: Did you have any problems with looters?
Speaker: None. Not anymore, but you did?
Speaker: A little bit.
Speaker: What happened?
Speaker: We're shocked. We saw a supermarket about 50, perhaps 75 people looting the supermarket, coming out of the supermarket with shopping carts, absolutely filled, overflowing with everything they could get. These situations, of course, can bring out both the good and humanity and the bad in it.
Brooke Gladstone: It was a disgraceful time for the reporting of the American Media, really. 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 moved 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, basically in the mainstream of debate.
There was a time when questioning some of the tenants of capitalism and supporting vast public projects were outside the Overton window. It has slipped a little bit to the left. Those things can now be considered seriously. That has been a big change. Lately, the Overton window has been on a slider. Sorry.
Mark Hannah: Is that Trump? Is that Bernie Sanders?
Brooke Gladstone: That is initially my feeling, is Trump making us understand fundamentally our status quo bias. The belief that our institutions will save us and that the system worked was hugely shaken. 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? 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 happen, 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 when the families haven't been notified. Beyond that, there are cultural mores here that are tremendously different from other places in the world. I will not say that those places that show the grizzly pictures somehow have less delicate feelings than we do or so forth. I just think that we think it's really icky. There are ways to show, I mean, there were rules against showing flag-draped coffins coming back from Iraq.
It's not like, "Oh my God, a family's going to be in pain." It was simply images of death. I do think that was why for while the New York Times and other outlets were just listing names and so forth. It is an agonizing moving target for someone like you, who has to do that. I think that's another example where your gut rules to the extent that you're allowed to let it rule given that your employers can 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, Lindsay Addario's picture in the Times of the mother and daughter lying dead on the road, Ukrainian. On the one hand, you could say, "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 significance whatsoever. In that picture, I think did truly capture vividly one aspect. In terms of whether to get involved in it may be a central aspect of the war. In that sense, I think 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 on 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 sus 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 A, three, and four-star generals, or sometimes less than that, but still generals and B people who really have guided us just wrongly in previous wars.
Brooke Gladstone: Can I just add to that very quickly something that is also appalling about the armchair generals? There's often, in fact, always no disclosure of their ties to defense industries? Almost all of them have those ties after leaving the service.
Fred Kaplan: 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. They have done a bit of that but still when you get into the let's talk about what kinds of bombs are used or 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 distorts and distracts from the main question.
Brooke Gladstone: 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. The long panel tables of people 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 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 someplace, and that 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 all use 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. 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 longtime listener and fan of Brookes, 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.
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. If nothing else, this episode has helped you be a more critical consumer of and producer of news, then our work here is done.
Katya Rogers: You've been listening to an episode of None Of The Above. A podcast hosted by Mark Hannah and produced by the Eurasia Group Foundation. Thanks for listening. Tune in this weekend for a show hosted by Brooke where she'll be asking, how do we talk about gun violence when we've said it all before? This is On The Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.