The sex scandal that brought down U.S. Gen. David Petraeus has exposed the mainstream media’s predisposition toward toning down criticism and suspending objectivity when covering military-centric stories.
I’m no mind reader, but I suspect the motives underlying the U.S. media’s military-friendly coverage are two-fold: 1) The innate patriotism of reporters and; 2) the fear of dealing with the inevitable blowback that would come from criticizing the most venerated institution in America.
The Petraeus scandal embodies the media’s skewed coverage of the military, not so much because of the way reporters have refrained from treating the scandal with the usual excitement that such salacious stories typically elicit — although they have been noticeably restrained in their criticism of Petraeus. Rather it’s because the scandal clearly illuminates the role the media played in mythologizing Petraeus in the first place.
Despite serious questions about the nature of some of his policies, the press largely has ignored issues surrounding Petraeus, while helping to cultivate an image of a value-oriented, American hero without flaws; a sort of military Superman if you will. Michael Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone magzine and BuzzFeed, has been one of the only reporters with the audacity to ask critical questions of Petraeus’s alleged role in manipulating the White House into escalating the war in Aghanistan in September 2009.
The typical reaction to Petraeus’s affair with his biographer has been tinged with sadness. For example, Foreign Policy Magazine’s Managing Editor Black Hounshell, in an article titled “The Tragedy of David Petraeus,” wrote that “Petraeus’s downfall is a huge loss for the United States,” as, “not only was he one of the country’s top strategic thinkers, he was also one of the few public figures revered by all sides of the political spectrum for his dedication and good judgment.” Hounshell added, “He salvaged two disastrous wars, for two very different presidents.”
It’s not so much the praise of Petraeus that is worrisome — I admire and respect Petraeus, too — it’s the media’s unwillingness to exert the same level of energy toward scrutinizing the more controversial aspects of the general’s legacy. Furthermore, The Petraeus coverage — before and after the affair — reflects a broadly accepted idea that all men and women in uniform should be seen as heroes.
I happened to agree with this assertion, but I think it’s often distorted in a way that induces voluntary self-censorship and caged dissent. Given the widespread acceptance of the idea that all soldiers are heroes, many reason that this means it would be unpatriotic to challenge the morality of U.S. wars because this, by extension, would imply our heroes are complicit in morally questionable acts.
This self-censorship — which stems from a fear of being unpatriotic — breeds a simplistic, non-thinking culture that accepts the fallacious assertion that all U.S. wars are waged to safeguard the lives and liberties of American citizens. This absurd narrative is embraced even when its supporters would privately admit that past wars in Vietnam, Grenada, Panama and arguably Iraq had little to do with protecting the lives of Americans.
Personally, I don’t consider those who fought in Iraq and Vietnam heroes or villains — although I do passionately, but respectfully, disagree with those in uniform who honestly believe these wars were morally righteous; I consider them victims of conflicts ordered by powerful men and women who should have known better. Soldiers are heroes not because of their actions in controversial foreign conflicts, but because of their willingness to sacrifice their own lives for others. There is simply no act worthy of more praise than the willingness to give up one’s own life for the lives of complete strangers.
That said, Petraeus, and those like him, don’t deserve a free pass from the media.
Andy Heintz is a political commentator. He previously was a Herald staff writer, now a sports reporter at the Ottumwa Courier, Ottumwa, Iowa. Read his blog at http://www.orble.com/just-one-mans-vision/