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War as a Media Subsidy

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One can’t help but be amused by the way television news programs become practically weak at the knees when war looms. The prospect of reporting on a major armed conflict is met with almost universal applause by our friends in the entertainment, oops, the news industry — and it’s really not hard to understand why.

For most of a reporter’s life, or for that matter, for most of the life of any news executive running a television news department, the daily task of information dispersal is a thankless, tiresome grind of fluffy personal-interest stories, political press conferences, public-service announcements, weather, and, if they’re really lucky, the occasional corporate scandal to liven up the news day.

Every reporter fancies himself the next Woodward and Bernstein working indefatigably to find the smoking gun and bring truth to light. But reality quickly comes crashing in, and instead our hapless hero must wade through the monotonous years of inane news coverage without so much as a peek at a Pulitzer-winning moment.

Then … war.

Now everything has changed. No longer must our hero worry about keeping the audience’s ever-wavering, ever-changing focus by shooting the Today Show from Puerto Vallarta or Milwaukee or from the back of Matt Lauer’s motorcycle.

War means instant ratings. War means retired military officers with impressive resumes on hand to provide “expert” opinions. War means catchy new buzzwords like “shock and awe” and “phase line” and “second front.” War provides unchanging story titles, like “Desert Storm” and “Just Cause” — and now, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

War gives otherwise shallow intellects the opportunity to speak like veterans about sophisticated and glitzy war-fighting technologies. Reporters and news anchors go almost giddy when cataloging the awesome destructive power of our military might.

War means good-looking television reporters on the scene in the Kuwaiti desert or riding shotgun with the 101st Airborne Division. The combination designer shirt/chemical warfare trousers — complete with sunglasses perched casually atop perfectly maintained trendy hairstyles — becomes a standard uniform on the catwalk of international television news reporting.

Most of all, war provides that of which every television news program dreams — an end to having to look for news. It’s a gift courtesy of the government. In war, news is ready-made, freeze-dried, re-hydrogenated, dished up, and offered to a hungry viewing audience without anything approaching the labor of real news stories. War is a single story running on and on, something reporters rarely see — but always crave — on the unsteady ground of 24-hour news. War is free fodder for the cameras.

War builds careers.

News reporting is work. Like any other endeavor, those who engage in it wish to be at the top of their game. And just like any other market-driven field, those who best please their customers will be rewarded in their pocketbooks.

Yet we rely on the media to provide us with information about the world around us, so that we might better make informed decisions regarding the selection of those who will lead our nation and the course they should take. When reporters and news directors embrace war because it’s an easy gig, they are giving the customer what he wants — but then again, so does a prostitute. One would like to think, however naively, that the profession of journalism would be better than that.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.