How Politico and the New York Times pass off hawkish opinions as facts

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Jun 11 2021

This week the New York Times published an article titled “Senate Poised to Pass Huge Industrial Policy Bill to Counter China.” It details how the growing perception of a threat from China has created bipartisan support for massive new government spending on tech. What makes the piece interesting is how it subtly supports the trend it describes. Here’s the lead paragraph:

WASHINGTON — Faced with an urgent competitive threat from China, the Senate is poised to pass the most expansive industrial policy legislation in U.S. history, blowing past partisan divisions over government support for private industry to embrace a nearly quarter-trillion-dollar investment in building up America’s manufacturing and technological edge.

Note that “urgent competitive threat from China” has no attribution. The Times simply states as fact that China poses a threat—and an urgent one, the kind that must be countered immediately—even though many foreign policy analysts would take issue with this claim.

The piece was co-written by David Sanger, a star foreign policy reporter for the Times whom this newsletter has characterized as having “apocalypse-hastening tendencies.” Through melodramatic framing and occasional editorializing, Sanger has time and again heightened America’s perception of threat from such adversaries as China, Russia, and Iran.

But Sanger is far from being the only mainstream reporter who subtly promotes a hawkish worldview. The journalistic “voice of God”—the ostensibly objective and therefore authoritative tone that traditional American news outlets convey—is often used to defend interventionist American policies or push our leaders to do something about, well, everything. Indeed, as another news outlet illustrated this week, sometimes this hawkish voice of God is used to create scary stories almost out of whole cloth.

The Iranians are coming!

Over the past two weeks, Politico has published a series of pieces—all billed as “exclusive”—about two Iranian naval ships that appear to be on course for Venezuela. Here’s how the first article starts:

The U.S. national security community is monitoring two Iranian naval vessels whose ultimate destination may be Venezuela, according to three people familiar with the situation, in what would be a provocative move at a tense moment in U.S.-Iran relations.

A provocative move! Why, one might ask, should the US feel provoked by the specter of Iranian warships docking on the other side of the Caribbean?

Let’s assume that, as some intelligence sources told Politico in a subsequent installment of its series of stories on this non-story, that the ships may be delivering weapons to Venezuela. So what? Lots of Latin American countries have bought military hardware from countries on the other side of the Atlantic. The Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding, the US has no lawful claim to be the Western Hemisphere’s police force.

Politico doesn’t name the “three people familiar with the situation” who notified it of the breaking news that ships had been spotted moving across water, but we will venture two informed guesses about them: (1) They are members of the Blob; and (2) they possess the deficiency in cognitive empathy—that is, in the ability to see the world from another actor’s perspective—that seems to be a requirement for Blob membership. If having two Iranian naval ships within 1,500 miles of the US is provocative, then what should Iran make of the dozens of American warships parked less than 150 miles from its shores? Especially given that less than two years ago the US assassinated Iran’s most important military leader with flagrant disregard for international law?

After that first Politico article, the rest was predictable—and, for all we know, was eagerly anticipated by some of the “people familiar with the situation” whom Politico seems to have taken its initial cues from. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio seized on the story to argue that President Biden should do something to stop the ships from crossing the Atlantic. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board chimed in: “Reports that two Iranian frigates may be steaming into the Atlantic toward Venezuela ought to concentrate minds in the Biden Administration. So much for Iranian goodwill amid President Biden’s determination to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.”

Having triggered calls to do something about the ships, Politico reporters Lara Seligman and Andrew Desiderio wrote a follow-up in which they documented the fruits of their efforts. They quoted an anonymous National Security Council spokesperson saying the US “would reserve the right to take appropriate measures” to deter any weapons transfer. And, lest this resolve flag, Seligman and Desiderio invoked the voice of God to remind the American public that this was a “major test for the Biden administration.” When they finally got around to quoting an expert who would support this kind of framing, it was an “Iran expert” from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that specializes in freaking out about Iran and sabotaging US diplomacy with it.

A third piece, written by Seligman and Nahal Toosi, added fuel to the fire by saying that “a successful crossing would be a significant demonstration of Iran’s naval capability and potentially provide Tehran a new foothold in America's near abroad.”

Readers had to wait until the final paragraph for what, after all the buildup, may have struck some as a letdown: “Experts cautioned that there is not much the United States will be able to do to deter the warships if they continue on their current trajectory. The ships are in international waters, and it is not clear they are breaking any laws.”

You might think that a line like that would put an end to the story. But Politico managed to get a fourth piece out of the controversy. It quoted an unnamed Biden official assuring readers that the US is doing everything it can to deter the ships. The rest of the write-up was dominated by quotes from hawkish commentators like Elliott Abrams and Kirsten Fontenrose, an expert with ties to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-rival.

The brouhaha reached such proportions that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had to answer questions about the ships in a congressional hearing on Thursday. (He is “concerned” about their voyage.) Thankfully, we learn near the bottom of Politico’s piece on the hearing that—for the time being, at least—the Biden administration may be resisting Politico’s hype. “A defense official said the Pentagon is not currently drawing up plans to monitor the ships more closely using air or naval assets in the region, or to conduct an intercept in international waters.”

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America needs an adversary

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether reporters who engage in threat inflation are giving voice to their ideology or are just in it for the clicks. Certainly the Politico series got some clicks, as reflected in the site’s “most read” list.

But Sanger’s motivation may have an ideological component. On Wednesday’s Daily podcast, host Michael Barbaro spoke with Sanger about the China piece he co-authored. The podcast ends resonantly, with an exchange that’s worth recounting:

SANGER: What we’ve learned here essentially is that the competition with China, the fear of China—both the realistic and the exaggerated fears of China—have become the one great unifying element of American politics today.

BARBARO: And if that is true, David, then I guess there is some hope that a democracy can plan for the long term—that this is not just the domain of an autocracy.

SANGER: That’s right. Even after this bill passes, our research and development spending as a percentage of our GDP is still going to be well below the Chinese and some other countries. It is more of a start. But if there’s one key lesson that emerges from the debate—really the non-debate—over this bill, it’s that America needs again, as it always has, an adversary to be the organizing thought for things we probably needed to do anyway.

BARBARO: First Russia, now China.

SANGER: Russia in the Cold War, China in the new cold war.

BARBARO: That’s how America gets its act together.

SANGER: That’s how America has a shot at getting its act together.

[Dramatic music]

So David Sanger is on record as saying that fear inflation can be a good thing; he believes that fear of China—"both the realistic and the exaggerated fears”—is what gives America “a shot at getting its act together.” Kind of makes you wonder whether we should trust him when he intones, in the voice of God, that China poses “an urgent competitive threat” to America.

This piece originally appeared in The Week in Blob, our weekly summary of international news and the nefarious doings of the US foreign policy establishment. This feature always goes out to paid subscribers and sometimes goes out more broadly. If you like it we hope you’ll share via email or social media and consider subscribing.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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