Taking the Lapdog Press to Task on Foreign Policy Reporting
Ted Galen Carpenter thinks we’re repeating the same mistakes in Ukraine, yet journalists have learned nothing from Iraq.
Today’s guest, Ted Galen Carpenter, is a senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He has written 13 books and over 1,100 articles on international affairs. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Strategic Studies. His latest book, Unreliable Watchdog, examines the empty promise of press freedom embodied in the First Amendment and offers lessons on how the press should honor its duty to inform ordinary people. Our founders could not have imagined that such freedom would be squandered by much of the press, leaving it as little more than an unquestioning mouthpiece for the political establishment.
I agree with Ted’s point that the press, as a business protected by the First Amendment, has certain duties that correspond with its rights and freedoms. The press should use these privilege responsibly. Overall, Ted’s book delivers a powerful message: with rights come responsibilities, and the press is no exception.
Listen or read the interview summary below:
- Cato Institute (@CatoInstitute) / Twitter
- Unreliable Watchdog | Cato Institute
- Volodymyr Zelensky Is Washington’s New Jonas Savimbi — Antiwar.com Original
- Washington’s Convenient Relationships with Dictators — Foundation for Economic Education
- Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault? Featuring John Mearsheimer — YouTube
- Ted Galen Carpenter discusses groupthink, foreign policy, media, and Ukraine on ABC’s Between the Lines | Cato Institute
- Why Can’t America Accept an Imperfect World? | Cato Institute
Transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity
Bob Zadek (00:00:00): Ted, welcome to the show. Was my opening too harsh, or did it appropriately set the tone for today’s discussion?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:01:56): The title of my book, Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and US Foreign Policy, was chosen deliberately. The press is meant to serve as a watchdog over public policy, calling attention to government misconduct and incompetence. However, the media’s track record in this regard is poor and declining.
Two major issues stand out:
- Instead of investigating and reporting independently, journalists often act as stenographers, rephrasing and circulating government propaganda as news.
- World events are frequently misrepresented in simplistic melodramas pitting “horrible villains” against “angelic advocates of freedom”. The villains are always US opponents, the angels US allies — even if the angels are deeply flawed or corrupt.
These twin diseases of the news media undermine its duty to inform the public.
What Would the Founders Say?
Bob Zadek (00:04:30): You said in your introductory comments that the press is supposed to serve as a watchdog. Where does this expectation come from? Who determined that this is the press’s role? As you noted, the founding fathers’ publications openly took political sides. Thomas Jefferson had his preferred newspapers, and John Adams had his. Readers expected praise for their preferred politician. The founders and the public did not expect the press to be impartial watchdogs. So, where did the idea that the press should serve as impartial watchdogs originate?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:06:18): The expectations for an adversarial press have not been met. While early newspapers were partisan, openly attacking opposing political parties, today’s media largely supports the government. There is little opposition, especially regarding foreign policy and national security, where a bipartisan narrative dominates and is rarely challenged. Journalists who question this narrative face backlash from colleagues and government agencies. This shift to collusion, regardless of which party controls the White House, is the danger.
Bob Zadek (00:07:38): As we discuss the state of the press today, it may be helpful to reflect on the past. Was there ever an ideal time with regard to press freedom or objectivity? In preparing for this conversation, I tried to recall major events from US history — from its founding through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and the Spanish-American War — to identify a potential “golden age” of the press. However, I could not definitively point to one. So I ask: Can you identify a period we could view as a high point for the press to use as a benchmark against today? Having a reference point in history could provide useful context for evaluating how — or how much — the press has changed.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:08:52): We’ve seen periods where media narratives conflict, or “dueling biases”. An ideal of perfect objectivity in the press is unrealistic. However, as the U.S. has expanded its global influence, the media has increasingly served government interests. This trend has worsened significantly. Government officials promote their agendas through a more subservient press.
Journalists became disillusioned after government officials lied about the Vietnam War. This skepticism extended to other issues in the 1970s and 1980s. As in the early Republic, views were partisan — liberals criticized Reagan’s policies in Central America while Republicans defended him.
Though hard questions were asked and debates occurred, the Persian Gulf War ended this. Journalists again saw themselves as part of the government, as patriots supporting patriotic policies. Questioning such policies was unacceptable.
Mainstream Media Influence over Foreign Policy
Bob Zadek (00:10:56): When discussing freedom of the press, let’s focus on foreign affairs coverage by mainstream media. By “press”, I mean major news outlets like The New York Times and CNN, not just bloggers. While bloggers can attract many readers and influence discussions, for this conversation let’s focus on mainstream media. How does their foreign affairs coverage impact freedom of the press? Defining our terms will help listeners follow along.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:12:23): The press has evolved over time. Originally, it consisted of pamphlets and newspapers. Magazines later joined as another medium. In modern times, radio, television, blogs, the internet, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been added. Today, these new forms of media are considered part of the press. However, traditional outlets like newspapers and television still have the greatest reach and influence on public policy. While a dedicated blogger may have thousands of readers, major news outlets can reach millions. As a result, these large entities tend to have a similar worldview and rarely challenge government officials’ perspectives. Meaningful dissent is rare. Though the press now takes many forms, scale continues to impact influence. The entities with the widest reach remain the most powerful, despite changes in how people get their news. A diversity of viewpoints is still needed to best inform citizens and hold leaders accountable.
Does Media Have a Special Responsibility?
Bob Zadek (00:14:07): The media is fundamentally a business, like any other business in America. All American businesses only have a duty to obey the law, prescribed by our governmental system. Although we are born with the belief that the press is special, the media does not have a duty or public service obligation that companies like Amazon or Microsoft lack. The media only has a duty to obey the law, and if it fails to do so, it will be punished. Does the media have any special benefits under our legal system that come with a duty to behave differently? Or are we simply assigning one type of business a duty that we do not assign to others?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:15:40): Well, in this case of course it’s a self-proclaimed duty. Journalists claim it is their duty to scrutinize policymakers and report to the public. If that is their self-declared mission, then their performance should be judged against that standard. Given the kind of simplistic propaganda that dominates the airwaves, journalism has failed spectacularly in covering defense, foreign policy, and international issues.
Bob Zadek (00:16:40): The media establishes an aura of authority as reputable sources of information. As citizens, we are conditioned to trust the media’s reporting. We expect journalists to uphold the founders’ vision of a free press as embodied in the First Amendment and a cornerstone of our society. The press is considered a pillar of public discourse — a “fourth estate” on par with the three branches of government. However, with this esteemed status comes responsibility. If the media abuses its position by spreading misinformation or being overly biased, it violates public trust and undermines its credibility.
To call oneself a journalist requires adherence to journalistic standards of objectivity, accuracy, and fairness. Is this a reasonable starting point for discussing the media’s improper behaviors and how to measure and address them? The conversation could examine the roles of both the media and the public in maintaining an ethical press.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:18:11): The press claims to be essential for a free society by preventing abuses of power and the rise of dictatorships. But it’s hard to fulfill this role when it consistently allies with and serves government institutions that are gaining more power, acting secretly, and violating civil liberties. The press’s failure has been most notable regarding foreign policy and national security, though not limited to those areas.
Schilling for the CIA: The Church Committee Exposes the Corruption of Journalism
Bob Zadek (00:19:07): In your book, you provide many examples of the press failing in its responsibility. Tell the story of a time the press misbehaved, according to your standards.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:19:45): The Senate Investigative Committee uncovered in the 1970s that over 250 prominent U.S. journalists were on the CIA’s payroll. Led by Senator Frank Church, the committee found that these journalists were not just sympathetic to the CIA or cooperative with it, but were paid shills for the agency. Given the large number of prominent journalists involved, this was a major dereliction of duty.
The early 1990s saw major developments with the Persian Gulf War. The press largely repeated government propaganda, portraying Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in an extremely negative light. While Hussein was certainly a cruel leader, media reports of Iraqi troops pulling Kuwaiti infants from incubators were false. Despite this, the US government endorsed such stories.
Similarly misleading reports occurred in the lead-up to the Iraq War, with media claiming Iraq was involved in 9/11 and had weapons of mass destruction. These assertions were untrue, yet the news media happily repeated them.
The Nord Stream pipeline is a recent example of the US selling a dubious narrative. The US sold the story that Russia bombed its own pipeline
Media failed to ask key questions: Why would Russia damage its pipeline and revenue stream? If it wanted to stop gas flow, why not just close its own valve?
The US, not Russia, is the prime suspect, given longstanding opposition to the pipeline. U.S. leaders opposed Russia-to-Europe natural gas pipelines from the 1980s. They pressured Germany to abandon Nord Stream 2 months before the Ukraine war and sought to position the U.S., Norway, and U.K. as alternative gas suppliers if Russian pipelines were shut down.
Balancing Profit-Making with Truth-Telling
Bob Zadek (00:23:39): The media industry is largely made up of for-profit corporations whose primary goal is to generate revenue for shareholders, not to serve the public interest. While there are some exceptions, most major media companies are focused on profits. This raises the question of how to motivate these companies to invest in high-quality journalism and coverage of important issues when doing so may not be profitable. Supporters of free markets may argue that media companies should focus on profits, but this can come at the expense of informing and empowering citizens.
How do you balance the two?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:26:21): Media outlets have gone through ups and downs in profitability. While national chains can generate enough sales to turn a profit, independent outlets struggle. To be profitable, outlets often resort to a bland, uniform style to appeal to a wide audience.
The shift toward political bias was not solely due to politics or profit motives. While some media pursued an ideological agenda or financial gain, others seemed to do so despite decreasing profits. Some outlets grew tired of the dominant narrative and saw a business opportunity in alternative viewpoints. For example, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter was motivated by objections to the platform’s authoritarian political correctness, as well as potential profits from catering to underserved audiences. The success of Musk’s venture remains to be seen.
Social media companies are no longer purely private entities. They receive government subsidies, input, and threats if they don’t cooperate. For example, the US Justice Department and intelligence agencies paid Twitter $3.4 million annually so that they could meet with Twitter officials and pressure them to exclude certain individuals and viewpoints. This collusion between companies and governments is dangerous. It corrupts the marketplace of ideas and threatens free expression.
Bob Zadek (00:28:55): Is the media reacting to government pressure or misbehavior? As we examine Twitter, the FBI, and the CDC’s interactions with the press, we must consider whether the media is diluting its role as a watchdog due to incentives or threats from the government.
Let’s shift our focus from criticizing the press to examining the role of government and relevant laws. We could discuss the Espionage Act of 1917 and other statutes, as well as how the government influences press independence through guidance and subtle actions, as you mention extensively in your book.
The Velvet Glove and the Iron Fist
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:31:01): In my 1995 book The Captive Press: Foreign Policy Crises and the First Amendment, I described the government’s tactics toward the media as either the “velvet glove” or the “iron fist.” The iron fist involves overt threats, like prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act. The velvet glove is more subtle but equally dangerous: the government implies that the media will receive benefits for cooperating with its agenda.
The government may offer exclusive stories or lucrative contracts to analysts who support its positions. It portrays these analysts as independent commentators rather than paid spokespeople. If you do not cooperate with the government, you will lose access to exclusive stories that attract readers and viewers. The government will not tolerate maverick journalists who embarrass it. They say, “Our cooperative relationship will suffer if you allow such iconoclastic journalists.”
The White House claimed it was “suggesting” changes to media coverage of COVID-19. In reality, these were threats. A government agency “suggesting” how the media should operate is like a mob boss making a suggestion — it’s not optional. There’s an implicit threat of consequences for non-compliance. The government knows a menacing tone is often enough to intimidate journalists who might resist their messaging. Most journalists readily amplify the government’s preferred narratives. But for the few who resist, the government has ways to force compliance.
Bob Zadek (00:34:05): Of course, coming from a government agency that controls funding, such a “suggestion” carries significant weight.
A few weeks ago on my show, I discussed this famous 2009 letter regarding Title IX and sexual harassment on college campuses. The Department of Education’s 2009 guidance letter was a “suggestion.” The Department of Education claimed ignorance about the impact of their “suggestion”, which threatened to withhold federal funding if universities did not aggressively address sexual misconduct.
Government “suggestions”, especially from agencies that control resources, are not mere recommendations. The Department of Education’s disingenuous stance undermined the coercive nature of their guidance.
(00:35:12): The government often pressures social media companies to promote certain information or suppress other information. For example, the CDC told Twitter which information about COVID-19 it considered accurate and which it considered misinformation, and said it would be unhappy if Twitter published different information. President Biden famously said “Twitter is killing people” for allowing what he considered misinformation.
As Ted’s book discusses, this is one way the government contributes to the media’s failings. It is difficult for companies to resist government demands, even if it means compromising their independence and objectivity.
Ted, could you elaborate on the tools governments use to influence media companies and reduce their objectivity?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:37:21): Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, can testify to the severe consequences for embarrassing the national security establishment. Government agencies relentlessly pursued him for simply exposing their lies and misdeeds.
My colleague James Bovard, a columnist for the New York Post and USA Today, has long been a thorn in the side of government bureaucrats on both domestic and foreign policy issues.
After Bovard published a critical piece, a top justice department official called the editor of USA Today and strongly suggested it would be in the newspaper’s best interest to part ways with the author, Jim Bovard. Fortunately, the editor refused to be intimidated.
But how many others have succumbed to such pressure over the years? I’d bet there are plenty. We’ve seen prominent journalists fade from the scene after voicing strong criticism of government policy, especially regarding national security agencies and the national security state. I don’t think that’s coincidental. I would be willing to bet most of those episodes followed input suggestions from the government.
Bob Zadek (00:39:44): One prominent example during the Obama administration involved a Fox News reporter who was threatened with prosecution by Obama’s Attorney General, allegedly for violating the Espionage Act. There was public speculation about whether the reporter’s actions in reporting a news story amounted to a crime. While the incident involved Fox News, the concern was about the government’s behavior toward the press. As I recall, the Attorney General discussed indicting the reporter or convening a grand jury. Is this another example of the point you’re trying to make?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:40:50): The Obama administration’s brief named two journalists who could be legally prosecuted as accessories to espionage for reporting leaked information. The administration chose not to prosecute, portraying it as a favor to journalists. However, they reserved the right to prosecute journalists in the future. This threatens journalists to discourage criticism of the administration. Whistleblowers leaking information to journalists face a growing risk of prosecution. High-level leaks authorized by national security leaders are permitted, but whistleblowers and journalists utilizing whistleblower information may be prosecuted as spies. The administration is taking whistleblower and journalist prosecutions more seriously to silence dissent.
Beware Overwhelming Consensus
Bob Zadek (00:42:20): I aim to help our audience make the most of the hour we have with them. What should they do differently and what they should look out for?
Ted Galen Carpenter: One key takeaway is that just because an activity is labeled as journalism does not mean it should be viewed as an authoritative public information source. When we need professional advice, we seek out experts like lawyers, doctors, architects, and the like. We don’t simply ask someone if they are a doctor and then follow their advice if they say yes.
There is a warning here: simply labeling something as journalism should no longer impart credibility or authority. Viewers must think critically about the expertise and objectivity of information sources.
When investigating issues and making judgments, find reliable sources of information. For civic matters, choose sources that are well-informed and unbiased, not just the loudest voices. Use the same care in selecting news sources as you would for legal or health matters. Don’t assume that press coverage alone conveys truth. Much information is impaired by bias or inaccuracy. Look beyond surface-level channels and blogs. View information skeptically, as a starting point for understanding issues, not the final word.
Journalists vary widely in the quality of their work, just like doctors. When reading a journalist’s writing, it’s important to consider their track record. Do they have a history of accurate reporting and analysis? Have their predictions or claims held up over time? Or does their writing seem misleading or like fiction?
Also be suspicious of overwhelming consensus in the media. Conventional wisdom is often wrong, not right. Especially be wary if journalists are embracing the latest government campaign, whether domestic or foreign. In these cases, journalists may be serving as propaganda agents rather than independent monitors.
Evaluating journalism requires effort. You must follow journalists’ work over time to assess their accuracy and uncover any ulterior motives. But as a engaged citizen, this diligence is necessary.
Are Patriotic Movies Propaganda?
Bob Zadek (00:46:53): As I prepared for the show, I found myself reflecting on Hollywood’s role during World War II. At the time, Hollywood produced many “patriotism on steroids” movies to support the war effort, such as by demonizing the enemy and glorifying Allied troops. While this propaganda-as-entertainment raises concerns today, it was seen as necessary and admirable patriotism then.
Some argue this media-government collaboration was appropriate given the circumstances. Entertainment could encourage the public to buy war bonds, make sacrifices, and maintain morale — all to help win the war. However, others find this relationship concerning, even if well-intentioned. There is a tension between patriotism and objectivity.
Let’s compare the patriotic portrayal of the entertainment media during World War II to the attitudes of the present day.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:49:14): I would caution against that approach. Much of the media from that era demonized entire populations, not just governments. Portraying all Japanese or German people as evil was unhealthy and unfair. Entertainment should avoid such overly broad generalizations.
The media’s patriotic fervor cannot justify the imprisonment of citizens. The unjustified incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War 2 is a prime example. So too are more recent cases of misconduct and lies by the government. As citizens, we cannot ignore repeated abuses of power or blindly support supposed patriotism. While I respect the U.S. government, that respect is not unconditional. No citizen should ignore injustice or climb aboard a misguided patriotic bandwagon.
The United States’ actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, and Syria were misguided. Overthrowing governments and creating chaos in Iraq and Libya, and empowering extremists in Syria, were mistakes. Expanding NATO to Russia’s border triggered the Ukraine tragedy. Americans and the media should hold officials accountable for these poor decisions instead of blindly following leaders.
Though Bashar al-Assad’s regime is oppressive, supporting Sunni extremists against it was the wrong approach. US conduct has been flawed, and officials must be called out on this, not blindly followed.
Bob Zadek (00:51:31): Is there any government policy or behavior that you find so offensive it contributes to major problems? If so, would you support repealing the statute enabling it?
Are there any actions elected officials could take to prevent the press from becoming a propaganda machine?
Other than individuals making independent decisions over time to effect change, are there any steps that could be taken?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:52:26): Congress can and should repeal the Espionage Act of 1917.
Bob Zadek (00:52:31): Tell our audience about the Espionage Act of 1917. As unbelievable as it may seem, Ted, there could be some people out there who can’t recite the statute from memory. Despite its innocuous-sounding name, it’s actually quite controversial.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:52:53): The Espionage Act is an update of the 1918 Sedition Act. Essentially, it criminalizes any criticism of US policy during a national emergency. The government can classify any document it wishes, and disclosing a classified document violates the Espionage Act. Over 1 billion documents are now classified, including the CIA’s lunch menu.
So when you have over a billion documents classified — that’s designed to conceal all government activity from media scrutiny and public scrutiny — that system needs to be repealed. It has been abused again and again and again. That’s one thing that needs to be done immediately. I would like to see a Supreme Court decision explicitly overruling Korematsu vs. the United States. That was the decision that approved Franklin Roosevelt’s executive order imprisoning Japanese and Japanese American citizens on the basis that they might pose a security threat in the Western states. It was dishonest at the time, politically motivated, not necessary, and a deep, deep offense to the liberties of the American people, setting a horrible precedent that could come back to haunt us at any time. Third, Congress needs to get serious about following the constitutional process if we go to war as a country. That means a declaration of war from Congress, an end to presidential wars. That’s absolutely essential.
Bob Zadek (00:54:54): The media primarily focuses on entertainment and emotional appeal rather than substantive information or thoughtful discussion. As profit-seeking enterprises, media organizations target the lowest common denominator of consumers rather than the most discerning. In-depth analysis and high-level discourse are rare in the media landscape. As a result, the nuanced discussions and complex issues that warrant attention remain largely untouched.
The eternal conflict between passion and reason has long been pondered. As Socrates contemplated, and Thomas Jefferson experienced in Paris, the heart and mind can battle intensely. In Jefferson’s case, his heart yearned for a woman while his mind urged caution. His private writings on this internal struggle were widely shared.
According to Thomas Jefferson, he would prefer newspapers without government over government without newspapers. Our nation’s founders recognized the media’s role as a safeguard for democracy. However, today’s media prioritizes profit over providing essential information to citizens.
Do you agree with Jefferson that the media should operate independently from the government? This is a difficult choice with arguments on both sides.
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:57:43): I would like to see a very vigorous and diverse press and the most limited government possible. What we have now is the opposite: a massive, leviathan government and a timid, obedient press that is not terribly useful. That’s a bad combination.
Bob Zadek (00:58:11): In your book, you offer a few additional suggestions, thoughts, and ideas for the readership to consider as we approach the concluding moments of our show. What lessons can our readers anticipate learning from your book upon reading it?
Ted Galen Carpenter (00:58:39): I suspect most readers will be surprised to learn just how compliant the press has been over the decades, and especially in recent years, and how slavishly many journalists have followed the government’s desired policies. I suspect most Americans think the press is a feisty institution that does not hesitate to challenge the government or expose wrongdoing. Unfortunately, as this book shows, that is far from the case: most of the time, the press acts as the government’s lapdog rather than its watchdog.
Bob Zadek (00:59:32): The First Amendment of the Constitution provides for free speech and freedom of the press separately. Congress shall pass no law prohibiting the free expression of ideas. While the Amendment protects free speech and then separately freedom of the press, I have never quite understood why freedom of the press is singled out as a distinct right. If the First Amendment merely prohibited laws interfering with free expression, wouldn’t that be sufficient to protect freedom of the press rather than identifying it as a separate freedom?
Is there a meaningful difference between the rights to free speech and freedom of the press?
Ted Galen Carpenter (01:00:45): At the time the Constitution was created, there was a sense of distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech referred to individuals expressing themselves, such as through letters or speeches on a soapbox. The press was viewed as a separate category, referring to newspapers and pamphlets that are widely circulated.
However, to me there is no meaningful difference between freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of expression, especially of political ideas and ideological positions, is the same regardless of the medium through which it is expressed. The mechanism of expression is unimportant.
Things are becoming increasingly worrying regarding the government’s ability to dominate public discourse and suppress anything that contradicts its agenda.