Public Debate Suffers in Guardian’s Liberal Take on NYT Alleged Warmongering

The zinging April 9 lead from Guardian columnist Owen Jones: ‘So now we know what it takes for an unhinged, bigoted demagogue to win liberal applause: just bypass a constitution to fire some missiles.’

So, Jones is accusing the liberal press of being warmongers for supporting the U.S. air strike against Syria’s government. Nice line. Worked well for Chomsky and Pilger over the decades. Also, Greenwald is Tweeting the same right now, so it’s somewhat predictable for Jones to wade in.

And he takes an early pop at the NYT, always a tempting target for anti-war truth-tellers:

‘Trump “reacted viscerally to the images of the death of innocent children in Syria,” declared Mark Landler in the New York Times. The original headline on that article, since amended? “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First.”

(Like many NYT headlines, and almost everyone’s to be fair, the NYT’s original headline was a bit tone-deaf and dumb — but it also probably wasn’t significantly wrong)

In the only section from the NYT Jones cited, Landler reports Trump had a strong emotional reaction to the chemical weapons attack. But what does that have to do with liberal media warmongering? Hmm. What else does Landler have to offer:

‘On Thursday, an emotional President Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency, ordering a retaliatory missile strike on Syria for its latest chemical weapons attack. In a dizzying series of days, he upended a foreign policy doctrine based on putting America first and avoiding messy conflicts in distant lands.’

Any hawkishness there, OJ? Not really. Maybe Landler bares his talons later?

‘It was difficult to reconcile the anguished president with the snarky critic of American engagement who, from the comfort of private life, advised President Barack Obama not to strike Syria after a chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus three years ago.’

Seems reasonable. Did Jones actually read all of the article, which is reasonably detailed and nuanced? Or merely fulminate over its tone through an ideological fog?

Nowhere in the piece does Landler offer support for Trump’s action, or explicitly sympathise with his approach. There is no ‘liberal applause’, at least not from Landler. In its editorial, the NYT admits ‘some sense of emotional satisfaction’ in seeing Syria’s government bombed, but also to being ‘unsettled by the many questions raised by President Trump’s decision’. Hardly wildly belligerent.

Landler himself primarily reports that there was a significant amount of emotional impetuosity in Trump’s reaction. OK, maybe he’s wrong (although it’s not a controversial analysis of Trump’s behaviour), but that doesn’t make Jones’ criticism on point. In fact, he has mischaracterised the article. I don’t know, or particularly care, whether that’s Jones being disingenuous or sloppy — either way it should be unacceptable.

This might be one sole example, but it’s symptomatic of prevalent media problems. For example, when you listen critically to what many TV news talking heads say on subjects you know a bit about, you’ll probably find yourself shaking your head.

Jones is a presumably highly paid and definitely highly prominent columnist for one of the world’s most influential newspapers. He has to crank out a couple of pieces a week. Not actual reported articles, rather some heavily ideological think pieces. Everyone should expect someone of his stature to always produce something excellent, otherwise you’re setting the bar way too low.

Clearly, Jones makes a number of points in the article about the Syria predicament that lots of well-meaning people will agree with. And a U.S. journalist describing Pentagon missile launches as ‘beautiful’ is idiotic and offensive. But there are also parts of the piece that are in keeping with a factually suspect throwaway hack job. Those sections matter.

(It should probably also be pointed out that OJ reacted to some fairly silly Tweeted criticism of the column with a Medium blog post accusing his media colleague critic, John Rentoul from The Independent, of ‘disgusting dishonesty’. Ahem!)

So, what do we get in response from the Guardian’s readers, who shared the article more than 25,000 times? Detailed analysis holding the star columnist to account with constructive criticism? Nope. Next to nothing as far as I can tell. If you have the time and tolerance to scrawl below the line, you find a bunch of people expressing tribalistic political stances, but very few taking Jones to task for his sloppy journalism. (Yes, you’re spot on, I didn’t read all 1,870 comments — but the browser’s Find function turns up no subsequent mentions of Landler or the NYT)

Until people from all points on the political spectrum more often take this kind of thing seriously from the commentariat — meaning striving to objectively call out all pundits out for their bullshit rather than reacting like a pantomime audience— then there’s no reason to expect any kind of desperately needed improvement in public debate.

Not beautiful

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