The Press and the Syria Debate: Neither Neutral Nor Balanced

Hawkish assumptions embedded in newspaper coverage -- and one article that shined above the rest. 

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.

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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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