Complicated topics like the decision to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty are challenging to address in the modern media. As the comments under many of my analysis pieces on Facebook repeatedly show, most Americans are interested in debating inferences they can derive from headlines, rather than the nuances of a complex issue. Analysts are left with a challenge: how do you sum up what the INF treaty is and how leaving it will effect national security in a single headline that isn’t so technical and boring it’ll scare readers away?
Well, if you’re most large outlets around the country, you simply don’t bother. Instead, you make it a story about Trump, and since hating Trump sells, you add a pinch of that too.
That top story mounts an argument that boils down to, “Nobody should have nukes because they’re bad.” The bottom left suggests Russia will devote a new fortune to missile development, despite being unable to fund existing programs for tanks, new aircraft, or even to repair its damaged aircraft carrier. Finally, CNN contends that leaving the INF Treaty is bad for NATO, even though NATO’s leadership has said in no uncertain terms that it isn’t. Interestingly enough, these headlines closely mirror those run in Russian state-owned media outlets in recent weeks.
It almost seems as though the press is less interested in what the INF Treaty does and how it effects the national security apparatus than they are in selling the public on the idea that “the big orange dummy in the White House is at it again.” If you ask me, this is not at all dissimilar to how Trump’s announced Space Force initiative was received. Ever since Trump first garnered headlines regarding a Space Force, debate has raged within the defense community about whether or not a new branch is the most cost-effective way to address a threat nearly no one disagrees is serious. In the media, however, the initiative has been treated like a science fiction vanity project, again, seemingly because that’s just easier to package for today’s social media economy.
Both of these issues warrant discussion and debate. In a piece I wrote earlier this week, for instance, I discussed how backing out of the INF Treaty benefits the United States in terms of an actual military threat posed by the Chinese. Russia lacks the economy needed to stand and swing with the United States in real warfare and mutually assured destruction remains intact regardless of the size or placement of Russian warheads (assuming it deploys any new weapons near Europe as a result of ending the treaty, which at this point remains nothing more than an assertion). The truth of the matter is, with Russia blatantly violating the INF Treaty since 2008, the only nation hindered by its language has been the United States. China’s massive missile arsenal, including the hypersonic anti-ship missiles America is currently so concerned about, would largely violate the INF Treaty–had China’s leaders ever signed it. Of course, they never did, because it offered them little in the way of strategic value to do so.
To be clear, there are reasonable arguments to be made that oppose the Trump administration’s decision to leave the treaty–they’re just not the ones many large outlets seem to be publishing. Instead, headlines all over the world make it seem like Trump has a team of dedicated scientists in his basement building new nukes to aim at Russia, while countless other pieces published in these same outlets contend Trump himself has been compromised so thoroughly by the Russians that he’s effectively a Russian state actor. It boggles the mind that one man can both be Putin’s Manchurian Candidate and the man single-handedly responsible for plunging the United States into a new nuclear arms race with Russia–a nation, it pays to note, has a smaller GDP than Brazil and has faced consistently-shrinking defense budgets in recent years.
Now, I’m on record for criticizing Donald Trump and his administration more than many conservative-leaning readers would prefer (and I have the hate mail to prove it), but just because you don’t like an elected official doesn’t mean they’re incapable of making sound decisions. American politics have become so divided that we prize the fight more than anything–certainly more than a meaningful dialogue and seemingly more than national security itself. There are, to be honest, two parties to blame for that: media outlets for leaning into the more profitable model of selling bias, and (as much as readers hate to hear it) the general public for making bias the more profitable model. As long as we get mad at our news outlets for telling us news we don’t like, outlets that are more worried about revenue than honesty (i.e. staying in business) will simply switch to telling us what they know we want to hear.
Bias in the media is, to a large extent, a matter of supply and demand. The American public demands biased coverage by seeking it out, clicking on it, and sharing it. As a result, we’re skipping over important debates, like whether or not to maintain Cold War-era missile treaties, in the interest of simply filing each new outrage into the categories we’re already comfortable with so we don’t have to come up with any new memes when we fight with the political opposition on Facebook.
Real life is a whole lot more complicated than “Trump is bad,” but journalists can’t be “pillars of virtue” from the unemployment line. Seek out good, objective news and share it. Support honesty and truth when you come across it and you’ll be doing more for this country than the media outlets we (all, including me) love to vilify.
We deserve better, but to be fair, we can also be better. Let’s start there.