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Could today's media hysteria lead us into a war?

Overwrought coverage stoked by alarmist officials and pundits can both shape and ratify bad policy decisions. We've seen it before.

Analysis | Media

Thursday was roiling with headlines — thanks to remarks from U.S. government officials, including President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Greenfield — that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “imminent.” As a result, social media was crackling with the speculation that war might break out any moment. 

Media coverage of the Ukraine crisis for the last several months has been increasingly sensationalist and overwrought. Many of the worst features of Western media reporting on foreign policy issues have been on display from the mostly uncritical acceptance of government claims at face value to the worst-case alarmism about what is going to happen. 

Some of the analysis of the dynamics behind the crisis has been no better, as pundits and think tankers have spun far-fetched theories that the Russian buildup is happening now because of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Ostensibly straight news reports have also repeated these bogus credibility arguments without evidence. Despite the many significant differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, the public has also been treated to speculation about how the crisis in Europe could lead to a conflict in East Asia. All of this is harmful to an accurate understanding of the crisis, and insofar as it contributes to ratcheting up tensions it makes de-escalation more difficult.

Many Western news reports have dutifully relayed worst-case scenarios, including claims that a Russian advance could take Kyiv in a matter of days for the purpose of regime change. Some publications have seized on specific dates and times when an invasion is supposed to begin. Blaring these alarmist headlines have served mostly to damage Ukraine’s economy and spook its stock market, much to the Ukrainian government’s dismay. Davyd Arakhamia, the head of President Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party in Ukraine’s parliament, recently complained about the economic damage done by what he called Western media hysteria and estimated that it was costing the country $2-3 billion every month.

Sometimes media outlets have made more significant mistakes in how they report the information they are getting from the government. PBS ran with a story that the U.S. believed the Russian government had decided on an invasion, requiring National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to clarify his own statements about the Russians readying for an attack on Friday Feb. 11. But not before major news organizations had tweeted out his original comments.

Before clarifying them, Sullivan's original statements led to some crazy extrapolation (this one below from the deputy director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center).

As more false warnings add up, they will tend to discredit the outlets that published them. Several outlets misreported Zelensky’s remarks about a possible February 16 date for the invasion and made it seem as if Zelensky were confirming that this was when it would happen when he was actually mocking the prediction. In general, Zelensky’s efforts to avoid panic have been portrayed as delusional or simply taken as proof that he is out of his depth, as if it would be more statesmanlike to run around with his hair on fire. 

One of the rare exceptions to the media’s credulity regarding official claims came during a State Department briefing when Matt Lee of the Associated Press challenged the department’s spokesman, Ned Price, to back up claims that the Russian government was producing an elaborate staged video to create a pretext for an attack. Lee kept pressing Price for some evidence beyond his statement that the government knew this, and Price couldn’t provide any. Price had the temerity to invoke the government’s credibility, and then he baselessly suggested that doubters were “taking solace” in information from the Russian government. 

Shoddy interpretations of the causes of the crisis have also been commonplace. Credibility hawks writing in major publications have been insisting that the Ukraine crisis is a direct consequence of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. If we just look at the chronology, this has never made sense: this Ukraine crisis has been building since early 2021 and it started before Biden had decided to withdraw. It is all the more bizarre when many of the same people will say that U.S. and NATO policies in Europe have nothing to do with the crisis, but somehow a decision to end a 20-year war in Central Asia has been crucial. Bret Stephens made this claim last month: “The current Ukraine crisis is as much the child of Biden’s Afghanistan debacle as the last Ukraine crisis was the child of Obama’s Syria debacle.” The Syria debacle to which Stephens refers was, of course, when Obama chose not to launch an illegal attack on another country. The attempt to link the “red line” in Syria to events in Ukraine in 2014 is just as absurd as trying to tie Afghanistan to the current crisis, and it confirms that the only connection between all these things exists in the minds of hawkish ideologues.

In an otherwise interesting opinion piece, Yulia Latynina offered the same lazy explanation: “If he had little intention of invading, why did Mr. Putin raise the stakes so high? The answer is simple: Afghanistan.” This “simple” answer doesn’t explain anything, since it requires us to believe that the Russian president’s thinking about Ukraine is influenced above all by his perception of America’s willingness to continue fighting a pointless war in Asia. The idea that our government’s decision to end an unwinnable war in one place encourages more aggressive behavior from other states in other places is totally unfounded, but this idea persists because it serves an alibi for the hawkish and confrontational policies that have contributed significantly to creating the current crisis. 

There have also been strained attempts to tie the Ukraine crisis to China and Taiwan. A Politico article asserted, “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive brinkmanship toward Ukraine has profound implications for another territory facing intensifying military intimidation from an authoritarian neighbor — Taiwan.” The unstated and unchecked assumption behind this assertion is that a security crisis in one part of the world must affect potential flashpoints elsewhere, but there is no good reason to believe this is true. The conditions and interests of the states involved are very different in the two cases. 

In another example, a report in The New York Timesearlier this month claimed that the Ukraine crisis “has become a test of the strategic assumption that lies at the core of the island’s defense: that American military forces would intervene to stop a Chinese invasion.” The report includes just one quote to back up this generalization about how Taiwan views the Ukraine crisis, and it takes for granted that there is a “link” between the two when there is nothing to support that contention. Since the U.S. and NATO have already stated clearly that they are not going to fight for Ukraine, it makes no sense that Ukraine could be a “test” of any U.S. commitment to fight for Taiwan. How the U.S. responds to anything that happens in Ukraine tells us nothing at all about how it would respond in the event of an attack on Taiwan, and it is both misleading and potentially dangerous to tie the two together.

The quality of media coverage of an international crisis matters because it shapes both public and elite opinion, and poor analysis can lead to even worse policy decisions. When coverage is alarmist, it can stoke tensions when tensions are already high. When analysis is extremely ideological, it can blind policymakers to viable solutions by misidentifying the causes of the crisis. It is because the situation is serious and the danger of war is real that we need much more responsible and careful reporting and analysis than we have seen over the last few months.

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