Millions of casual news consumers began their week believing that over the weekend, Iraq expelled the U.S. military from the country. The United States, they thought, now faced the decision to quickly leave or illegally occupy.
Had they flicked through many of the cable or network stations, or read a few headlines on their phones or at the gas station, these Americans had heard the president’s decision to kill the general of Iran’s elite Quds force was made with no understanding of the potential reactions. If they read The New York Times or caught any of its parroting on friendly news shows, they might even think the president had “stunned” the Pentagon officials who had only offered the kill option “to make other options seem reasonable.”
The problem presented here is none of these three scenarios is accurate. The U.S. military is not currently under any order to leave Iraq, though in America’s interest they should, and they might. Further, the Pentagon does not present a president with military options that’s ramifications have not been considered, nor does the chairman of the Joint Chiefs ever present the president a fake option.
“For non-Arabic speakers, reporting in the main news outlets [New York Times] and [Washington] Post is so misinformed (either on purpose or because of incompetence) that you might think that the Iraqi State has officially voted for ejecting U.S. forces from Iraq,” wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Iraqi-Lebanese chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai’s Washington Bureau.
The vote, he explained, was a party-line vote by Shia Iran supporters in the parliament. Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers had boycotted the session despite threats from the very same Shia militia that kicked off the current cycle of violence, leading to a barely functioning quorum in the chamber.
Of course, to admit threats of political violence from pro-Iranian militia would undermine the media narrative that the parliament, like the militia mob that attacked our embassy, represents everyday Iraqis. What these pro-Iranian lawmakers passed was no United States ouster, but a non-binding, partisan resolution that the United States should leave. The “quorum,” Abdul-Hussain writes, “was 170 of 328 (half + 4, just like Hezbollah designated a [prime minister] in Lebanese parliament with half + 4).”
“Iraqi Parliament Passes Resolution to End Foreign Troop Presence,” The New York Times blared. Four paragraphs down into the copy, by Reuters, the reader learns the resolution is non-binding.
“Repercussions mount over U.S. strike, with Iran nuclear deal pullback and Iraq call for U.S. troop pullout,” the Los Angeles Times tells us, waiting 14 paragraphs to explain the resolution is not binding, objectively failing the reader. That the president played golf, by contrast, is treated to the fifth paragraph.
The Washington Post, which elected to use the Associated Press’s write-up, didn’t include the important non-binding information at all. “Iraqi Parliament calls for expulsion of U.S. troops from the country,” it says. That’s it. Headline, as well as copy.
Fine, you might think. Headline space is limited; in today’s digital environment reporters and editors must more than ever grab a reader’s attention in the first few moments; the intricacies of the process can wait further down for the more committed news consumer. Sounds reasonable. Any editor currently in the business is familiar with the struggle. Then, since the purposes of a headline and opening are to inform the reader with reliable information they can use, these outlets failed. “[Either] on purpose,” Abdul-Hussain writes, “or because of incompetence.”
So what, you might ask. The United States might actually leave, so what’s the harm? The harm lies in either the incredible ignorance of journalists or, worse and sadly just as likely, the willing manipulation of readers to serve a political end.
The vast majority of Americans are casual consumers of the news. They have families, jobs, bills — dozens of concerns more pressing and tangible than world news consumption. These news consumers rely on headlines, television chyrons, and brief summaries to stay generally informed on what is occurring in the world, and when those things are misleading they are misled, regardless of if reality is buried deeper in the story.
But what about the more committed consumers? Maybe those who have family serving in the military and want to know what’s going on? These readers and viewers might have been treated to The New York Times’ reporting that “top military officials” were “flabbergasted” and “immediately alarmed about the prospect of Iranian retaliatory strikes on American troops in the region” after the president’s decision to kill Gen. Qassem Soleimani. “Pentagon officials have often offered improbable options to presidents to make other possibilities appear more palatable,” the story reads.
The amazing thing here is it’s almost certainly factually true while also deeply misleading: The four reporters on the byline found at least two “top military officials” who said they were “flabbergasted” by the president’s call. Notice the information here isn’t sourced. It’s not “according to Pentagon officials involved in the decision process,” “Pentagon officials involved in the drafting of options,” or even Pentagon officials “with first-hand knowledge of the presentation.” It’s what we call “Voice of God”– it is simply said, and so it is.
No decent editor would let that pass without digging in deeper, and the Times’s editors certainly did. “Who are your sources?” “What is their knowledge of the situation?” “Why aren’t we naming them?” “Do you have confirmation?” These were all asked as a matter of basic practice, yet none of the answers are even hinted at in the article. Even descriptions of the officials’ level of involvement or reason for request for anonymity were excluded. This, to be clear, requires a level of comfort with displaying an incredible disdain for the reader.
Further, is the outlined scenario at all plausible? Keep in mind this is a president the Times has repeatedly and breathlessly warned is crazy, impulsive, callous, vicious, and constantly feared by patriotic government employees doing their best to restrain him. Still, these reporters are willing to believe the career military and civilian leaders of the Pentagon float ideas they consider dangerous or stupid? Of course not, but disbelief is routinely suspended in the face of bias-confirming story lines.
Were any of these people in the room or involved in the planning process? Certainly not, or they would not have been surprised by the call. Additionally, they would have reviewed the potential repercussions.
“The options that go to the executive are vetted through the Joint Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense before they are presented to the president,” Alex Plitsas, who served for a time as chief of sensitive activities for the assistant secretary for special operations under President Barack Obama, told The Federalist. “Legal counsel reviews them, as does everyone else [in the chain].”
“You don’t,” he stated emphatically, “do throwaway COAs [course of actions].”
There is also zero reason to believe Join Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley or Secretary of Defense Mark Esper were doing any of what The New York Times reported. So why was this a story at all? Short answer: it fit The Narrative of an irrational president making decisions that terrify his own commanders. A Narrative, in this case, teed up for reporters by Obama’s own Iran man.
But often, The Narrative is false. Or, as President Donald Trump prefers, “fake news.”