There is a growing psychosis sweeping the U.S. around the Russian bombardment of Ukraine, and it is being triggered by the legacy news media. The steady stream of biased, often erroneous or incomplete information spewing from the establishment press is leading people to quickly choose sides in a complicated international conflict, waving flags in support of “their side,” fawning over global leaders, and even holding peaceful car parades in efforts to do what they think they can to prevent World War III. In the process, the context and details of the conflict, as well as its historic roots, are being pushed aside in favor of a kind of binary knee-jerk activism that is far too common in American political culture. Speaking out against Russian attacks on Ukraine and in support of the people there should not be difficult to understand or do. However, demanding that the U.S. take aggressive action, such as swiftly implementing a no-fly zone, displays a waning level of sophistication regarding international relations.
This is psychosis. According to WebMD, “[p]sychosis is a condition that affects the way your brain processes information. It causes you to lose touch with reality. You might see, hear, or believe things that aren’t real.… It can be triggered by… extreme stress or trauma.” Much of Americans’ recent stress about Russia-Ukraine germinated from legacy news media reporting. War coverage is good for news media profits. When it appeals to nationalism and villainizes international players, it excites and engages audiences. As a result, the jingoistic legacy news media often parrot the military-industrial complex, nudging voters into a national psychosis over foreign affairs. As the Intercept documented in mid-March 2022, rather than investigating pathways to peace or procedures for de-escalating the events in Ukraine, legacy news media reporters bombarded the White House with questions aimed at goading the nation into war.
The fear-laden reporting that led to American psychosis over Russia began six years prior, when the public was slowly and methodically conditioned by false and baseless legacy news media stories that claimed Russia had hacked a Vermont power plant; put a bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan; shifted election outcomes around the world; and had compromised then-President Donald Trump with the infamous “pee tape.” This propaganda primed liberal audiences to blame Russia for everything they hated about Donald Trump’s presidency, and brilliantly distracted from the corporate news media and polling industry’s cataclysmic failure of predicting Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 Electoral College.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal and inexcusable invasion of Ukraine has provided a lucrative opportunity for the legacy news media to reignite and amplify more anti-Russian blather. None of this is to say that Russia or Putin should be defended in the press. Rather, American citizens, like any citizens in a supposed democracy, need context to understand global affairs, and the press is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution for the purpose of providing that context.
However, when it comes to reporting, the legacy news media privileges profit over veracity. Indeed, much of the legacy media’s revenue and many of its guests originate from the defense industry, which benefits financially when Americans are supportive of war. For example, in March of 2022, the former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson critiqued Russia on NBC’s Meet the Press, but the host, Chuck Todd, neglected to mention that Johnson sits on the board of global security and aerospace company Lockheed Martin. This is a clear conflict of interest that audiences should be made aware of when they consider Johnson’s analysis.
The privileging of pro-war messages comes at the expense of useful reporting. As a result, American audiences remain largely uninformed about key issues regarding international affairs. A 2019 survey conducted by Gallup that was commissioned by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the National Geographic Society (NGS) found that “[l]ess than half of the respondents were able to identify Afghanistan as the country” that provided safe haven to Al Qaeda before the September 11, 2001, attacks; and “[j]ust over half could identify Iraq on a map.” News media clearly plays a role in such ignorance, as the same survey found that “those who say they use books, magazines, or radio to keep on top of these issues and those who get their information from a wide range of sources scored better than their peers.” The corporate news media outlets provide almost no historical context for the events taking place in Ukraine, such as the peace process laid out in the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements, the 2014 U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine, or the U.S. reneging on its promise—which was supported by Great Britain and France—to not expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into Eastern Europe that eventually influenced Putin’s recent foreign policy decisions.
Instead, news media outlets rely on inaccurate historical narratives such as claiming that Putin wants to reestablish the Soviet Union, when in fact he blames the shift to communism for the decline of Russia. Furthermore, the legacy news media have set up a binary narrative of good versus evil—Russia versus Ukraine—which provides no nuance to this complex situation. It is possible to oppose the leadership and behavior of both Russia and Ukraine: The former is an opponent of civil rights and democracy with imperialist ambitions, and the latter is ruled by a government that came to power not through democratic means, but by a U.S.-backed coup that worked in tandem with known neo-Nazis, who are still part of the military there. This brand of reporting does not position people to understand the impact that policy proposals will have on their material conditions, let alone foreign affairs.
There was a similar disconnection from reality in the months prior to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. Otherwise rational people were endorsing severe actions such as invading and occupying a nation because it allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and that their leader was a madman, like Hitler, who needed to be stopped. The WMDs turned out to be fake news propagated by the U.S. government under Republican President George W. Bush, and endorsed by members of the Democratic Party such as then-Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. For their part, the corporate news media endorsed the invasion and perpetuated the fake news that legitimized it. Most politicians in the two corporate-backed political parties endorsed it as well.
The similarities do not stop there. Just as in 2003 when Americans renamed french fries to freedom fries—due to France not supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq—American citizens in 2022 are banning vodka and renaming drinks with Russian-themed names such as the Moscow mule. Just as citizens rallied around the U.S. flag in 2003, they are now parading the Ukrainian flag. Just as anti-war figures like Jesse Ventura, Phil Donahue, Bill Maher, and Chris Hedges were pulled from legacy news media in 2003, corporate news and big tech have recently worked to remove content by anti-war and anti-imperialist figures such as Oliver Stone, Abby Martin, and—once again—Chris Hedges, who this time around lost his platform with Roku, DirecTV, and YouTube, which removed access to the archives of RT America, both from cable subscription services and online.
Meanwhile, the very same people who lied to the public and got them to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq are now “informing” the public about Ukraine and Russia. This includes journalists such as Stephen Hayes of NBC, who appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on March 27, 2022, as a voice of expertise to contextualize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Back in 2004, Hayes engendered support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq by falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had connections with Al Qaeda. On February 27, 2022, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and presidential speechwriter David Frum appeared in legacy news media as foreign policy experts. While serving in Bush’s administration, both utilized the legacy media as a megaphone to propagandize the American public into supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This was achieved by perpetuating the baseless claims that Iraq had WMDs and was colluding with Al Qaeda. Despite the fact that these claims were proven false after the invasion, those who perpetuated the falsehoods continue to appear as expert sources on foreign policy in corporate media. These are the same people who incorrectly predicted that the U.S. would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq.
Rather than hold these officials accountable and cite their waning credibility as grounds to replace them with more credible sources, corporate news media pundits excuse their behavior. For example, Charlie D’Agata of CBS News excused the invasion of Iraq as compared to current events in Eastern Europe because Ukraine was more “civilized” than Iraq (he later apologized). He was not alone in his delineation between worthy and unworthy victims of war across establishment media.
A democratic foreign policy requires measured responses and strategic decisions, especially when the potential for nuclear war remains very real. However, thanks to the failures of the press, the American public is poorly positioned to shape those decisions. Instead, they are bombarded with propaganda in the form of trivial talking points masquerading as journalism. If you want to stop World War III, rather than cutting out Moscow mules, remove legacy news media from your diet, and expand your news menu with broader, more independent and diverse perspectives and information. Our collective future depends upon it.
Nolan Higdon is an author and university lecturer of history and media studies. Higdon’s areas of concentration include podcasting, digital culture, news media history, and critical media literacy. Higdon is a founding member of the Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas. He is the author of The Anatomy of Fake News, and he recently co-authored The Podcaster’s Dilemma with Nicholas Baham III and Let’s Agree to Disagree with Mickey Huff. He is a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. His work has appeared on Truthout and CounterPunch, and he has been interviewed by the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.