Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy

A concise summary of Ted Galen Carpenter’s new book.

Bob Zadek
8 min readMar 11, 2023
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Three-Paragraph Summary

Freedom of press is a cornerstone of our democratic political system. But reporters, pundits, and editors face intense pressure to serve as propagandists rather than journalists in their coverage of U.S. foreign policy. Too many members of the news media seem unable to make that distinction and play their proper role as watchdogs for the American people regarding possible government incompetence or misconduct. Since World War II, America has become a garrison state―always prepared for armed conflict — and the conflating of journalism and propaganda has grown worse, even in situations that do not involve actual combat for the United States. That behavior increasingly constrains and distorts the public’s consideration of Washington’s role in the world.

In Unreliable Watchdog, Ted Galen Carpenter focuses on the nature and extent of the American news media’s willingness to accept official accounts and policy justifications, too often throwing skepticism aside. He takes readers through an examination of the media’s performance with respect to the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the conflicts in the Balkans, the prelude to the Iraq War, the civil wars in Libya and Syria, and Washington’s post–Cold War relations with both Russia and China. The analysis explores why most journalists―as well as social media platforms―seem willing to collaborate with government officials in pushing an activist foreign policy, even when tactics or results have been questionable, disappointing, or even disastrous.

Unreliable Watchdog jump‐starts a badly needed conversation about how the press must improve its coverage of foreign policy and national security issues if it is to serve its proper role for the American people.

Read the Transcript

Key Concepts

Journalists as propagandists

At most times in our nation’s history, the journalism professional has done little more than rewrite government press releases when it comes to reporting on foreign policy.

It is no exaggeration to say that during World War I, an independent press in the United States ceased to exist. Members of the mainstream news media became simply an obedient distribution mechanism for circulating the government’s perspective without reservation.

With a brief exception in the 70s and 80s, hawks have dominated and continue to dominate the op-ed pages. Carpenter says this is representative of the groupthink that still holds both inside and outside of government.

Journalists also frequently have acted as subsidiaries for the National Security State — first abroad, but increasingly inside the U.S. too.

Journalists like Matt Taibbi have “charged that establishment journalists have worked to shift American public opinion in favor of the intelligence agencies and the foreign policy they promote.”

Fading Vietnam Syndrome

The Vietnam Syndrome is the term used to describe the American public’s reluctance to support military interventions or foreign wars following the Vietnam War. It is rooted in the belief that the Vietnam War was a mistake and that the United States should avoid similar conflicts in the future. This sentiment has been slowly fading in recent years, as the public has become more willing to support military interventions and foreign wars, particularly in the War on Terror. As a result, the Vietnam Syndrome is less influential in public opinion than it was in the past.

R2P (Responsibility to Protect)

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a doctrine that has been widely embraced by the international community since its formal adoption in 2005. It holds that when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to act. This responsibility can involve a range of options from diplomatic pressure to military intervention. The doctrine is based on the belief that sovereignty is not a license to kill, and that the international community must intervene when a government fails to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The R2P doctrine has been invoked in a number of international crises, including those in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, but it has not always been successful in preventing atrocities or bringing those responsible to justice.

The wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen have not necessarily liberated the people in those countries, as the R2P doctrine was intended to do. In some cases, intervention has exacerbated the conflict, further destabilizing the countries and leading to more suffering for civilians. In other cases, intervention has been successful in removing oppressive regimes and allowing for free elections, but it has also resulted in a power vacuum and increased conflict between different factions. In the end, it is clear that the R2P doctrine has not been a panacea for ending conflict and protecting civilians, and more work is needed to ensure that intervention is effective and has a positive impact on the population.

Humanitarian crises used as justification in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere

Threat Inflation

Threat inflation is commonly seen in the media today with regards to issues such as terrorism, military intervention, and other international security issues. It is also seen in public discourse, with public figures and politicians using language to exaggerate the threat posed by certain nations or groups. This can be done for a variety of reasons, such as to gain public support for military intervention or to increase defense spending.

Did we learn nothing fom Iraq?

Neo-McCarthyism and Russophobia

Neo-McCarthyism is a term used to describe the resurgence of Cold War paranoia and Russophobia in the United States in recent years. It is based on the McCarthyism of the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers engaged in a campaign of witch-hunting and fearmongering against alleged communists and other perceived enemies of the United States.

In the wake of the 2016 election, many in the media and the political establishment have accused Russia of meddling in the election and sought to portray the country as a hostile power. This has led to a new wave of McCarthyism, with public figures and politicians using language to exaggerate the threat posed by Russia and other foreign nations.

This neo-McCarthyism has led to increased tensions between the United States and Russia.

The Partisan Divide on Russia

The U.S. political landscape has become increasingly divided when it comes to Russia. On one side, Republicans often accuse Democrats of being too soft on Russia and not doing enough to counter the threat that Moscow poses. Meanwhile, Democrats accuse Republicans of being too close to Russia, and of being willing to accept Putin’s aggression in exchange for political gain. This divide has been further exacerbated by the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Despite the partisan divide, both Democrats and Republicans have supported military intervention in Russia in recent years. For example, both parties supported the intervention in Syria in 2015, and have supported other operations in the region. This is likely due to a shared belief among both parties that the U.S. must take a hard line against Russia in order to protect its interests and maintain global stability. As a result, both Democrats and Republicans have been willing to support military intervention when they believe it is necessary to protect American interests and counter Russia’s aggression.

Espionage Act of 1917

The Espionage Act of 1917 is a federal law that makes it a crime to interfere with the military’s operations or to support America’s enemies during wartime. It also criminalizes the disclosure of classified information, which has been used to punish whistleblowers who reveal information that the government doesn’t want made public. This poses a serious threat to freedom of the press, as journalists and media organizations can be targeted for publishing stories that are considered to be in violation of the law. Furthermore, the Act has been used to prosecute individuals for their political speech, which has a chilling effect on free expression.

Official Secrets Act

The Official Secrets Act is a British law that was passed in 1911 and is still in force today. It makes it a criminal offense to disclose information that is classified as being of a sensitive nature. The Act has been used to prosecute individuals who have violated the law, as well as to limit the scope of public debate by preventing the media from reporting on certain topics.

Members of the U.S. national security bureaucracy have longed to emulate their British cousins and implement the equivalent of the Official Secrets Act and the D-Notice procedure.

The Pentagon Papers & New York Times Co. v. United States

The Pentagon Papers were a set of documents that revealed the U.S. government’s decision-making process during the Vietnam War. The papers were leaked to the press in 1971, and they showed that the government had lied to the public about its intentions and activities in Vietnam. The papers also revealed that the government had deliberately expanded the war without informing the public, and that it had secretly bombed neutral countries in Cambodia and Laos. The release of the papers led to a landmark Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, which affirmed the press’s right to publish classified information in the public interest. The Pentagon Papers were a major factor in shifting public opinion against the war and ultimately leading to its end.

Wikileaks & the War on a Free Press

Wikileaks is an international non-profit organization that publishes news leaks, classified, and otherwise restricted information from anonymous sources. It was founded in 2006 and has become a major source of news and information, particularly in regards to issues of government transparency, accountability, and free speech. Wikileaks has exposed government secrets, including the release of the Iraq War Logs and the Afghanistan War Diary in 2010, which revealed the extent of civilian casualties in the wars, and the release of the US diplomatic cables in 2011, which exposed US foreign policy in unprecedented detail.

In response to Wikileaks’ releases, the US government has declared a “war on leaks” and has targeted Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange, with criminal charges and espionage charges. This has led to a debate about the freedom of the press and the balance between government secrecy and transparency.

The Logan Act

The Logan Act is a United States federal law that makes it a criminal offense for a citizen to engage in unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments that are in dispute with the United States. The act was passed in 1799 and was intended to prevent individuals from attempting to undermine the foreign policy of the United States. The law has been rarely used in the past, but it has been invoked in recent years in the context of unauthorized contacts between U.S. citizens and foreign governments.

[The Logan Act is an amorphous weapon that an ambitious administration could use against foreign policy critics at any time. Journalists could be sent scrambling to defend themselves against criminal prosecution and attempting to get the statute declared unconstitutional for the first time.

The Changing Landscape and Social Media

Social media creates an opportunity for more transparency, but also has come under the same kind of control.

Although social media may be beneficial on balance, the emergence of these platforms as major news players does not guarantee that efforts to debunk government or special interest group propaganda will be more widespread and effective. Nor does it guarantee the distribution of more critical assessments of U.S. foreign policy initiatives.

We saw Facebook’s suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story. Social media “fact-checking” seems to have a one-way bias.

YouTube removes dissenting content about COVID due to “community guidelines.”

Social media companies make recourse to “authoritative sources,” which is how they ultimately censor opinions that don’t conform to what the government wants people to believe.

How is this different from the Chinese system of censorship?