We are living in dangerous times. All around the world, intense military actions are taking place. Last week alone, Russia launched a huge military invasion of Ukraine; Saudi Arabia carried out dozens of strikes on Yemen; Israel launched a wave of deadly missile attacks against Syria; and the United States restarted its bombing campaign in Somalia.
These four deadly incidents happened concurrently. Yet judging by media coverage, it is highly unlikely that many will even be aware of the final three. A MintPress News study of five leading Western media outlets found that overwhelming attention was paid to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the others were barely mentioned, if at all.
In total, in the week between Monday, February 21 and Sunday, February 27, Fox News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC ran almost 1,300 separate stories on the Ukraine invasion, two stories on the Syria attack, one on Somalia, and none at all on the Saudi-led war on Yemen.
The data for the study was collected using the Factiva news database, which was then cross referenced with searches on the websites of the respective news outlets’ websites, and also checked against precise Google searches to generate a final total. A chart visualizing the disparity in coverage over those seven days can be seen below.
Collectively, the five outlets published 1298 stories about Ukraine, meaning each one printed at around one per hour on average over the week studied. FoxNews.com ran the most–308–roughly one every 30 minutes. However, there was little significant numerical difference between the outlets, whose front pages and editorial sections were all dominated by headlines about Ukraine. In contrast, only The New York Times mentioned the Somali strike at all, while The Washington Post was the only outlet to cover the attacks on Syria. Fox News, CNN and MSNBC did not cover any of the other nation-on-nation attacks at all.
The media gets around to opposing war
Despite repeated warnings, the attack on Ukraine still came as a shock to most in the region. On the eve of the conflict, only 42% of Ukrainians believed any attack was likely, with President Volodymyr Zelensky himself criticizing what he called a destabilizing Western “panic” over the possibility.
The Russian military has occupied significant portions of the country, capturing key targets. Yet it has also united the West against the action, drawing a sharp and apparently determined response. In addition to ejecting Russia from the SWIFT system of international payments, a number of NATO countries, including the previously more neutral France and Germany, have sent arms to Ukraine. Zelensky has also signed an application to join the European Union. Inside Russia, the government’s actions sparked protests nationwide, many of which were suppressed by the police.
A sign of how seriously the media took the story is the number of editorials both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran. Editorials are articles collectively written by the senior staff on issues deemed so important that the outlet must make its readers aware of their collective position–a position that guides future coverage. Three of the four editorials the Times ran that week were on Ukraine. They denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “bewildering aggression” and his “xenophobic, imperial and misguided notion that Ukraine was inherently an appendage of Russia.” Meanwhile, the Post published six separate editorials on the subject, each condemning Putin and praising President Joe Biden for his leadership.
The total rejection of violence was refreshing to many. “So this is what it looks like when the corporate media opposes war,” wrote Jeff Cohen, founder of media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, going on to make the point that the press has stood firmly behind virtually all of the United States’ recent conflicts.
In contrast, there was almost no coverage of the latest attacks by Saudi-led forces against Yemen–a campaign that has already created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. The years-long war has intensified of late, with January 2022 the worst month for civilian casualties since fighting began in 2014.
On February 21, Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) reported that the Saudi Coalition bombed targets in Hajjah province in north-western Yemen, killing a number of civilians and injuring far more. Meanwhile, jets pummeled the coastal city of Hodeida. The next day, airstrikes and missiles hit residential areas in the provinces of al-Jawf, Marib, Taizz and Saada provinces.
On February 24, the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Yemen was hit by 37 separate airstrikes across the country, primarily in Hajjah and al-Bayda. The next day, the Saudi Coalition also shelled Saada using heavy artillery, killing at least six civilians. Saada has been a center of the bloodshed for some time now. In January, the Saudis dropped a Raytheon laser-guided bomb on a detention center there, killing 91 people and wounding hundreds more.
This is just a taste of the violence, information about which is not easy to come by in the West. In a 24-hour period between Thursday and Friday, the Coalition is accused of violating the ceasefire agreement on 147 different occasions and locations.
These latest attacks were not covered at all by Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post or MSNBC. Yemen has never been a war that has interested American media. Indeed, on MSNBC, there has been more in-depth coverage of Ukraine in one week than of the Yemen conflict since it began in 2014.
This is despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have died, the UN estimating that the death toll reached at least 377,000 by the end of 2021. Furthermore, the United States is a direct participant in the violence. A recent MintPress study revealed that the U.S. has sold at least $28 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia alone, and provides training and support for Riyadh, both militarily and diplomatically, helping the Coalition to continue the bloodshed.
There was some coverage of Yemen in The Washington Post. However, it all centered around Yemeni aggression towards Saudi Arabia and its allies, who were presented as the victims. This included an article on how the U.S. is imposing new sanctions on the so-called “Houthi rebels” and a story about a low-tech drone attack on a Saudi airport, in which it also noted that “Fighting in the strategic city of Marib in past months has led to increased Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.” What the Post failed to tell readers is that Marib is not in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but in Yemen–a fact that undermines the narrative about who is the aggressor. (Inside Yemen, many consider referring to the de facto government as “Houthis” as derogatory and delegitimizing what they see as a coalition of many different groups into the political party Ansar Allah, rather than a Houthi insurgency.)
Somalia yawn, Syria shrug
Last week, the U.S. resumed its bombing campaign against Somalia, Africa’s second poorest
nation. Using a reaper drone, the military carried out an airstrike near the country’s capital, Mogadishu. The Tuesday strike also failed to make media waves, despite the military issuing a press release about it. The only outlet of the five studied to cover it was The New York Times, which released a story headlined, “U.S. Carries Out First Airstrike in Somalia Since August.” Far from condemning the act as bewildering aggression, as it had done with Putin, the subheadline immediately justified it, claiming that, “the strike targeted Al Shabab militants who had attacked allied Somali security forces.” Thus, a drone strike on a country on the other side of the world was framed as a necessary, defensive move. Indeed, the Times even included the phrase “collective self-defense” in reference to the strike. Two other news round-up articles in the Times mentioned the strike in a single sentence, linking to the story. That was the extent of the coverage.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to escalate its attacks on Syria. At around 1 a.m. on February 23, it fired missiles from the Golan Heights into Quneitra province in south-western Syria (Israel has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1967). The next day, it launched a missile attack on Damascus, killing at least three soldiers who were stationed on the capital’s outskirts. As a way of justification, Israel claimed that the Syrian army had been working with Hezbollah, carrying out a leaflet drop across southwestern Syria publicizing the assertion. In recent weeks, the Israeli military has hit Damascus a number of times, its jets reportedly breaching both Syrian and Lebanese airspace to do so.
In these efforts, illegal under international law, Israel is helped by the United States, which supplies it with nearly $4 billion in military aid yearly. U.S. forces currently occupy significant areas of Syria, including the oil-producing regions in the northeast, and constantly coordinate actions with their Israeli ally.
The only outlet to cover these actions was The Washington Post. But even then, it merely republished two dry articles from the newswire service the Associated Press, adding no commentary or background. Thus, the attacks were treated as business as usual and worthy of almost no attention.
“First major war between civilized nations”
Although the disparity in quantity of coverage is stark, it is also important to note the huge differences in tone and outlook. Media is festooned with pictures of the targets of Russian aggression. For the first time, we are being invited to view the war from the side of the victim. Furthermore, the coverage is not dry and matter-of-fact, but emotive and full of outrage. This is virtually unheard of when reporting on Western wars, and is a conscious decision taken by those at the top.
Weeks after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, for example, the chairman of CNN sent a memo to all staff advising them in no uncertain terms to downplay the suffering of Afghans, stating that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.” Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange went to prison for releasing images of victims of U.S. wars. Yet Russia’s victims are front and center, with media even going so far as to approvingly report on Ukrainian civilians making and using Molotov cocktails on Russian forces.
This, for Palestinian journalist Mohammed El-Kurd, was a revelation. “It is insanely surreal to realize that mainstream news outlets–and settler politicians alike–possess the linguistic capacity to call occupation by its name. A capacity that is made staggeringly absent in the context of occupied Palestine, often under the guise of objectivity,” he said, adding:
‘Hypocrisy’ doesn’t describe this adequately. The appropriate word is psychosis. They live in a parallel universe where Europeans, who take up arms to defend their lands and families, are called resistance fighters but Palestinians doing the same damn thing are ‘terrorists.’ There is a separate set of rules for different people.
For many, this disparity is simply about racism. “Ukraine is not the worst act of war since World War II. It’s not even the worst war going on right now,” wrote Sri Lanka-based journalist Indi Samarajiva, referring to Syria and Yemen; “It’s just the worst to happen to white people.”
Certainly, there has been a shocking amount of casually racist commentary on corporate media. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen,” said CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata from Kiev.
Al-Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie made similarly Orientalist remarks, expressing his concern for wealthy Ukrainian refugees fleeing, while also demonstrating his contempt for poor non-white people in the same circumstances, stating:
What is compelling is that just looking at them, the way they’re dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people, these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa; they look like any European family that you would live next door to.
Others made similar remarks. “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed,” said Ukraine’s former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, while talking to the BBC, which did not challenge him on the statement. “The unthinkable has happened…This is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!” exclaimed ITV News reporter Lucy Watson in a tearful explanation as to why we need to help the refugees. “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking,” wrote former Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan in The Daily Telegraph. “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” he added.
Summing up the orgy of casual prejudice was Daily Wire journalist Michael Knowles, who tweeted, “It just occurred to me that this is the first major war between civilized nations in my lifetime.”
The sheer number of media personalities expressing their shock at seeing “civilized” people in this predicament led a number of press associations from the Global South to release statements of protest.
“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected,” wrote The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association.
“The idea that war is a thing that happens in lands outside of the West is beyond myopic. It is a gross misrepresentation of the entirety of human history. People who are not white are not more innately prone and habituated to violence and suffering,” added the Foreign Press Association, Africa.
All comes down to whose ox is getting gored
While racism is clearly a factor in the coverage, it should be remembered that the bombing of Yugoslavia–a white nation comparable to Ukraine–was celebrated, not rejected. This was in large part because it was NATO itself that was the aggressor.
Media theory scholars have long argued that victims of Western aggression are largely ignored but those of the West’s enemies will be given center stage. In 1988, academics Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky developed their theory of worthy vs. unworthy victims in their book “Manufacturing Consent.” Together, they compared the coverage of two concurrent genocides, one in Cambodia (an enemy state) and one carried out by the Indonesian military (funded and armed by the U.S. government) in East Timor. While the savagery of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge became worldwide news, as the genocide in East Timor reached its peak, coverage fell to literally zero in major media outlets. This and other examples led them to conclude that both the quantity and quality of the coverage of atrocities is dependent almost entirely on two factors:
- Who is the perpetrator
- Who is the victim
If the perpetrator is our enemy, and there is political capital to be made from highlighting their crime, then the media will deem the victim “worthy”–especially if the victim is a pro-U.S. figure. If, however, you die at the hands of the U.S. or its allies, you can expect little sympathy or coverage from the media, especially if you are a Communist, Muslim, or any other designation that renders you unworthy of media attention.
In the Ukraine case, the perpetrator is an enemy state (Russia) and the victim is a pro-Western government seeking to join both the European Union and NATO. However, in the other three cases detailed here (Israeli strikes on Syria, Saudi attacks on Yemen, and U.S. attacks on Somalia), the aggressor is either the U.S. itself or its close allies, while the victim is an enemy actor. Hence the complete lack of coverage. Therefore, there will be few–if any–think pieces denouncing the U.S. for its barbarity, nor any calls to create a military alliance to counter Israel, or to take in hundreds of thousands of Yemeni refugees.
Turning the outrage tap on and off is a key way in which media manufacturers consent for U.S. foreign policy, hiding certain atrocities from our gaze and placing others on our screens. To be clear, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine should, of course, be making headlines around the world, and victims should be mourned and perpetrators condemned. However, the vast qualitative and quantitative disparity between coverage of the attacks on Yemen, Somalia and Syria and the attack on Ukraine, which received almost 400 times the attention of the other three combined, is another stark example of how the media is outraged at war only when it wants to be.
While the Israeli attack on Syria and the U.S. strike on Somalia were relatively minor occurrences in comparison to Russia’s invasion, and could therefore be said to deserve less coverage, the continuing Saudi war on Yemen is not. And while the Ukraine attack is new, the beginning of the Yemen conflict received scant attention at the time. Furthermore, all three are a direct result of American policy and could be stopped immediately if the public were sufficiently aware and engaged, thus rendering coverage of particular importance to U.S. audiences.
Americans are united in rejecting Russia’s attack on Ukraine. A recent poll found that only 6% of the public consider its invasion justified, as opposed to 74% against. This suggests that if the media covered U.S. imperialism in the same way it covers its Russian equivalent, then those wars would end immediately. But they do not. And the Ukraine coverage underlines that this is a choice they are making every day.