Why we praise our leaders for violence
In an unforeseen military move, President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike on a Syrian air base April 6, an act that has moved the U.S. dangerously closer to international warfare.
Naturally, Trump’s brash action sent the media into a whirlwind, with pundits and reporters shelling out their analyses and commentaries about the action. But what is becoming apparent in these reactions is the media’s first positive view on Trump. It is because of his acts of violence, tinkering on the brink of warfare, that the media has chosen to shower him with praise and respect.
After the airstrike, CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria said, “Donald Trump became president of the United States last night.” A New York Times piece analyzing the decision was headlined, “Trump followed his heart.” Another NYT piece framed Trump’s action as “an emotional act,” and was originally headlined, “On Syria Attack, Trump’s Heart Came First” before being changed. Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis Tweeted, “This seemed like a very different Donald Trump. More serious — clearly moved emotionally.”
This onslaught of praise for Trump is a 180 degree flip for a media that has largely ridiculed and criticized Trump ever since his campaign for presidency began. But this sudden change in tone toward Trump should not come as a shock, as it represents a long-held media bias toward male leadership — evidenced most clearly by how the media scrutinized Hillary Clinton while softballing other male candidates — and reveals the American media’s masculinity complex.
Societal expectations of masculinity demand that men be strong, serious and aggressive, and we reward the men who display these traits. These demands are strengthened when applied to a president, particularly because we largely associate aspects of masculinity with leadership.
There is no institution that perpetuates these stereotypes more than the mainstream media, and this bias was on full display in the hours following the announcement of the air strike. When the media praises and romanticizes displays of brute force from presidents, it strengthens the expectation that men must act in this way.
Prior to the missile strike, the media consistently held an unfavorable view of Trump, calling him “weak,” “unhinged,” “unqualified” and “brash.” It should be no surprise that these adjectives are antithetical to what is expected of a president. Now, Trump is being taken more seriously for his display of military force and strength primarily because he is fulfilling the role of a president in the way the media expects it to be done.
The mainstream media’s entrenchment in its own masculinity complex also extends to its obsession with war. In addition to praising Trump, the media has characterized the missile strike as a bold tactic. Emphasis on news of war it is a trend that has persisted throughout journalism history, representing one of journalism’s greatest downfalls.
The media’s constant romanticization of warfare are connected to the same reasons why the media fawns over presidential force and aggression: war encapsulates the characteristics of aggression in grandiose displays of brute violence. The media loves war because of the violence and the conflict, not to mention the endless ratings they know they will receive from the spectacle of war.
After all, if it bleeds it leads.
But the media’s obsession with war, in conjunction with a heightened respect for the president, is never sympathetic to those who suffer from it most from it. Hardly anything has been mentioned about the Syrians who died in the missile strike or the fact that the action was not approved by Congress. Oftentimes, war coverage turns the conflict into a sports game of winners and losers with no regards to the nuances or complexities of international relations. This type of war coverage dehumanizes the very human impact of war and turns it into a complete spectacle.
Media outlets’ fixation on this missile strike, Trump, and displays of masculinity comes with grave consequences and reflects a failing media system. It showcases a media that cares more about warfare and death than human life, and it normalizes brute violence that should never be seen as normal. It reveals a media system that simultaneously fawns over and cowers to the presidency. And what is alarming about this blanket praise of Trump is the lack of critical voices against the military action. This absence of criticism silences the voices of those who are critical of the president while simultaneously encouraging the president to continue with these military strikes. If there is one conclusion Trump can make from the media’s coverage of the missile strike, it is that military action equals more favorable coverage. And to Trump, favorable coverage is everything.
This type of softball reporting is antithetical to what journalism’s role should be: a watchdog on the powerful. Journalists should constantly be critical of those in power and should not allow themselves to be romanced by acts of violence or warfare just for the sake of boosting ratings. Ideally, journalists are supposed to maintain a watchful eye on the powerful, especially the president, and especially when the president becomes involved in international conflict. When the media fails in this role, it subsequently loses the trust of the public who depends on journalists to keep those in power accountable for their actions. This continuing trend of the media’s falling prey to its own masculinity and military-industrial complex is a dangerous attitude that leaves the media weaker and even more estranged from the public it is supposed to serve.
Celisa Calacal is a third-year journalism major who believes what bleeds shouldn’t always lead. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.