The Press and the Syria Debate: Neither Neutral Nor Balanced

Hawkish assumptions embedded in newspaper coverage -- and one article that shined above the rest. 
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Syria coverage in America's newspapers is the latest example of purportedly neutral, "objective" press coverage that's bursting with contestable assumptions, often without the reporters and editors involved quite realizing their biases. The core news: President Obama asked Congress to vote on intervening in Syria. The way it's being framed in accounts billed as straight news? 

The New York Times casts it as a roll of the dice:

In one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency, Mr. Obama effectively dared lawmakers to either stand by him or, as he put it, allow President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to get away with murdering children with unconventional weapons.

But Obama is a lame duck, few Americans care about Syria, no one is going to take to the streets if the U.S. doesn't intervene, and striking Syria's regime without Congress while flouting public opinion was a far bigger gamble. In fact, you could easily write that Obama averted one of the riskiest gambles of his presidency by postponing a strike and consulting the Congress.

If you're someone who personalizes politics, fetishizes disagreement, and intends to treat a Congressional rejection of a strike on Syria as a "humiliation" for Obama, the Times frame makes some sense, but make no mistake: Its assessment of the Syria debate's impact is self-fulfilling prophecy from an insular, status-obsessed elite. Obama's approach is "a gamble" because and only because other insiders imagine that a president being denied by Congress -- gasp! -- is embarrassing, rather than a healthy manifestation of Madisonian checks. 

The executive is more prone to war than the legislature or the people. This was foreseen. 

And come January 2017, when Obama leaves office, it'll be hard to find an American outside D.C. who'd treat failure to intervene in Syria as a defining moment. The economy, health care, the end of the war in Iraq: Those are his legacies, for better or worse. The average citizen would urge America's leaders to focus on the problems for which they're responsible rather than faraway atrocities, if the question were put to them that way. It won't be by establishment pollsters.

Here's the Washington Post casually asserting as fact one side of a highly contentious debate:

 Some members of Congress applauded Obama’s move, a strikingly unusual one in presidential history, particularly for a leader who has been criticized for dodging congressional oversight. The president does not need congressional approval for limited military interventions, and the executive branch has not sought it in the past.

Many Americans emphatically believe that the president does need Congressional approval for a limited military intervention, presuming that it isn't an act defending America from an actual or imminent attack -- and that isn't a fringe view. The plain text of the Constitution supports it. So does the text of the War Powers Resolution. Multiple members of Congress are asserting the legislature's proper role right now. And even President Obama and Joe Biden insisted that Congressional approval was a lawful imperative as recently as 2007. Biden even threatened impeachment if George W. Bush acted otherwise! 

Here's the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been on the international stage for nearly four decades. But his campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likely will define his diplomatic legacy.

If the U.S. goes to war with Syria, and it goes better than expected, or else turns into a terrible debacle, then John Kerry may be remembered partly for the role that he played. If the U.S. doesn't intervene, no one is likely to think a decade hence about Syria when they think of Kerry. He'll be remembered as a Vietnam veteran, a long-serving senator, a Democratic candidate for the presidency, and just another secretary of state.

And Fox News had the most unfair and biased piece:

President Obama said Saturday the United States should take military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians but also turned to Congress for approval -- dealing a potential setback to America's foreign policy and setting up what will likely be a hard-fought Washington debate on the issue.

“This menace must be confronted,” Obama said of the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack, speaking from the Rose Garden. However, the announcement also raised the question about whether the president put the burden on Congress to act.

"President Obama is abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents," said New York Rep. Peter King, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "The president doesn't need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line."

It is surreal to see a congressman deride the president for consulting Congress about a power that the Constitution clearly gives to the legislature. The Framers gave us co-equal branches and assumed that each would jealously guard their power. The one mistake they made was underestimating the sycophancy and subservience future legislators would display with regard to the executive.

King is an embarrassment to his branch of government.

An entirely neutral presentation of events may be impossible, but this Wall Street Journal article gets close enough to earn my admiration as a former newspaperman:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said on Saturday he has decided he should order a limited military strike against Syria, but in a move laden with political and diplomatic implications, he agreed in an about-face to solicit authorization for the mission from Congress. Mr. Obama's announcement in a Rose Garden statement brought an unusually sudden halt to a military mobilization that for days had appeared on the cusp of a bombardment of Syria as punishment for its alleged use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people — including more than 400 children. 

It also marked a jarring shift as president for Mr. Obama, whose senior aides have been saying that he would not seek congressional authorization and that he had the legal right to order the start of military strikes. President Obama says that while he has decided that it is necessary for the U.S. to undertake a military strike on Syria, he will seek the support of Congress before doing so. Mr. Obama said legislative leaders have agreed to hold a debate and a vote on the issue as soon as Congress returns, which currently is scheduled to be Sept. 9. Leaders in the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority, considered calling the chamber back to session before then.

The move places the president's Syria policy on an unknown course, subjecting it to a certain showdown on Capitol Hill where lawmakers are deeply divided on the issue and even more so over Mr. Obama himself. By agreeing to a congressional debate, Mr. Obama faces some amount of risk that he will be handed a defeat by legislators, like that suffered by British Prime Minister David Cameron over Syria this past week.

That is deftly executed straight news -- in this case, an extremely hard thing to pull off. Kudos.

Meanwhile, the entire mainstream media seems to have completely avoided making any contestable assumptions cutting against the prevailing view of D.C. insiders. No one wrote, "President Obama has asked Congress to weigh in on Syria, upsetting hawks in his administration while aligning himself with the text of the Constitution and promises about executive power that he made as a candidate." But that is just as plausible and neutral as many of the things that were published. 

Biased assumptions in that direction just never seem to happen.

Another lede no one would ever write: "With the U.N., the British parliament, numerous members of Congress, and a healthy majority of Americans insisting that intervention in Syria is a bad idea, President Barack Obama declared that while he still favors intervention, he wants U.S. Congress to debate the question."

The L.A. Times did earn my appreciation for noting, "Under the Constitution, Congress has the sole power to declare war." But its article went on to add, "The 1973 War Powers Resolution permits the president to take the country to war for as long as 90 days without congressional authorization." That isn't exactly true.

The War Powers Resolution states in part:

The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to
(1) a declaration of war,
(2) specific statutory authorization, or
(3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.  

The War Powers Resolution permits the president to take the country to war for 90 days without Congressional permission if one of those conditions are met.

None of those conditions is met in Syria.

Much of the press is ready to accept prevailing insider assumptions about executive power and the need of today's leaders to be hawkish to safeguard their legacies. They are faithfully articulating one take on the American experiment, but ought to acknowledge that it is a take many citizens vociferously contest.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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