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U.S. Interventions and Media Coverage

Trevor Thrall looks at how major U.S. papers have covered the extent of our government’s recent military involvement in other countries, and finds that they have covered it less frequently as it has increased:

President Obama has spent eight years talking about withdrawing the United States from the Middle East but has in fact expanded the military footprint of the United States. He has done so without much real debate in the mainstream news about the wisdom of his actions. Tellingly, what debate has occurred has focused on erroneous claims that Obama has appeased our enemies by withdrawing too much.

Perversely, this coverage has made it easier for the administration to expand U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen over the last two years without facing significant criticism or opposition. The U.S. has escalated its war on ISIS several times since it began in the summer of 2014, but the war itself appears to receive less coverage now than when it first began. The U.S. is now establishing outposts in Libya as part of the same ever-expanding campaign, but there is less attention paid to the U.S. role in Libya now than at any point in the last five years. And of course the U.S. has been actively supporting the Saudi-led war on Yemen for the last year, and references to the U.S. military and Yemen have actually declined from where they were a year ago. That is no doubt partly a function of the general neglect of Yemen in U.S. media coverage, but it fits the larger pattern of portraying an expanding U.S. military role in the region as if it were a contracting one.

Thrall produced a chart that tracks the monthly mentions of the president, the U.S. military, and specific countries in the same story in three major national papers (the Post, the Times, and the Journal), and they have all been dropping over the last two years despite increased U.S. involvement in all four places in the same period:

Note that these numbers are stories per month, so in a given month this year U.S. military involvement in Syria might be mentioned once every ten days. The even smaller number for Yemen is the least surprising of the four, since U.S. involvement in the war often goes unmentioned even in otherwise detailed reports about the conflict. It is nonetheless striking that the U.S. can become more actively involved in conflicts in all of these places while our military’s role in each conflict gets less attention.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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