By Owen Marsh
Presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard has not garnered much press coverage since announcing her bid on February 2; she’s the 13th-most-mentioned Democratic candidate on TV news, according to FAIR’s most recent count (4/14/19).
But when corporate media do talk about the Hawaii congressmember, they tend to reveal more about themselves than about her.
A veteran of the Iraq War, Gabbard is centering her presidential campaign around anti-interventionism (2/3/19): the belief that US interference in foreign countries, especially in the form of regime-change wars, increases the suffering of the citizens in those countries.
When corporate outlets talk about this anti-interventionist position, they primarily use it to negatively characterize the candidates who espouse it. Few in establishment media seem interested in going any deeper or considering the veracity of arguments raised by anti-interventionists.
The Washington Post (1/15/19) listed Gabbard’s anti-interventionism as a factor that hurts her electability in a video titled, “Why Some See Tulsi Gabbard as a Controversial 2020 Candidate.” Part of the video’s explanation: “The congresswoman has raised concern among Democrats in the past when she criticized Obama’s strategy on Iran, ISIS and Syria.”
CBS News (2/4/19) briefly interviewed Honolulu Civil Beats reporter Nick Grube regarding Gabbard’s campaign announcement. The anchors had clearly never encountered the term anti-interventionism before, struggling to even pronounce the word, then laughing and saying it “doesn’t roll off the tongue.” When asked to define the candidate’s position, Grube equated it to President Trump’s foreign policy. But “America First” rallying cries aside, it hardly seems accurate to call Trump an anti-interventionist, given his administration’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, his unilateral reimposition of sanctions on Iran (FAIR.org, 5/2/19) and his escalation of the drone wars (Daily Beast, 11/25/18).
When Gabbard appears on talkshows, she is typically on the receiving end of baseless questions coated in assumptions of military altruism. Gabbard appeared on ABC’s The View (2/20/19) and articulated her argument that US intervention does more harm than good to the people purportedly being helped. Rather than respond to any of the points she raised, however, the hosts resorted to the kinds of shallow questions that have been supporting interventionism for decades.
Sunny Hostin asked, “So should we not get involved when we see atrocities abroad?” Fellow panelist Ana Navarro elaborated:
I’m very troubled by the tweets about Venezuela that you’ve put out…. [Maduro] is not allowing humanitarian aid, he is a thug, he is a dictator, he is corrupt. And I am very supportive of what the United States is doing right now…. Why are you so against intervention in Venezuela?
On CBS’s Late Show With Stephen Colbert (3/11/19), the host resorted to old-fashioned American exceptionalism and Cold War–style paranoia to counter the congressmember:
Nature abhors a vacuum. If we are not involved in international conflicts, or trying to quell international conflicts, certainly the Russians and the Chinese will fill that vacuum…. That might destabilize the world, because the United States, however flawed, is a force for good in the world, in my opinion.
Comments like these may seem harmless; why not, after all, fight “atrocities”? In fact, they contain the same language that media have used for decades to justify interventionism and quiet dissenters.
Colbert’s exceptionalism argument, in particular, is reminiscent of the centuries-old vision of the US as a “shining city upon a hill.” It’s also a frame historically employed by media to rationalize the country’s foreign policy. As communications scholar Andrew Rojecki wrote in his 2008 research article (Political Communication, 2/4/08) on elite commentary of George W. Bush’s military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, “Over the course of the two crises, American exceptionalist themes made up a constant background presence in elite commentary and opinion.”
In other words, the assurance that Colbert has that the US has been “a force for good in the world” has paved the way for some of the greatest disasters of the modern world, including the 17-year-old war in Afghanistan (or almost 40 years, if you date from the US deliberately provoking the 1979 Soviet intervention) and the half-million-plus killed in the Iraq War. Other difficult cases for proponents of intervention include Libya, where removing an authoritarian ruler devastated the nation and brought back slave markets, and Syria, where hawks evade responsibility for the hundreds of thousands killed in a US-backed effort to overthrow the government by pretending that the US has failed to intervene.
Currently, in Venezuela, where Navarro is “very supportive of what the United States is doing,” Washington has imposed sanctions that are blamed for killing 40,000 in the last two years (CEPR, 4/25/19). Meanwhile, the US offers as a publicity stunt a convoy with “humanitarian aid” valued at less than 1 percent of the assets it has blocked Venezuela from spending.
Another easy to way to discredit anti-war critics is to accuse them of siding with the enemy (FAIR.org, 4/1/06). So it’s not much of a surprise that when Gabbard gets mentioned in establishment news, a comment about her meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is usually soon to follow.
Gabbard traveled to Syria in 2017, on what her office called a “fact-finding mission.” During her trip, she met and spoke with al-Assad, prompting the media to question her loyalties ever since, equating her meeting to tacit support of his regime. (Gabbard calls Assad a “brutal dictator,” but says US efforts to overthrow his government are “illegal and counterproductive.”)
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss appeared on the popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast (1/21/19) and confidently called Gabbard an “Assad toadie.” When Rogan asked her what “toadie” meant, she couldn’t define the word, asking the show’s producer to look it up for her. (It means “sycophant”).
The New York Times (1/11/19) and Associated Press (Washington Post, 5/2/19) both identified Gabbard’s meeting with Assad as a factor that made her a controversial candidate. In an article about Gabbard’s apparent fall from grace within the Democratic party, Vox (1/17/19) characterized Gabbard’s opposition to the funding of Syrian rebels as “quasi-support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the dictator responsible for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the conflict’s worst atrocities.”
Interviewers from MSNBC’s Morning Joe, ABC’s The View, CBS’s Late Show and CNN’s Van Jones Show all asked Gabbard to justify her meeting with Assad, or pressured her to renounce him as an enemy. None were interested in asking even the most basic question of substance, “What did you and Assad talk about during your meeting?” The implication is clear: When it comes to those designated by the state as official enemies, communication is suspect.
So perhaps the simplest explanation for corporate media’s treatment of Gabbard is that she opposes the kind of intervention that they have historically been complicit in.
FAIR (e.g, 4/91, 3/19/07, 8/11) has documented mainstream media’s consistent support for US intervention across the globe. FAIR has also been documenting corporate media’s support for intervention in Venezuela, finding recently that zero percent of elite commentators opposed regime change in that country (4/30/19) and noting corporate media’s harsh admonishment of Bernie Sanders after he tepidly questioned US intervention in Venezuela (3/5/19).
Gabbard’s campaign is just one small piece of a larger phenomenon in the mainstream media: Space for dissenting opinions on the US’s neoliberal, interventionist foreign policies must not be allowed.