The Western Media at War


Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine – and, in fact, for months beforehand – the Western media were clear about which side they were on. They wanted Ukraine to win, and especially for Russia to lose. But just because the media is fighting a war, that doesn’t mean they’re any good at it. The United States has recently quintupled Ukraine’s military budget and this might be a factor in the outcome of the war, but it has little to do with the media.

The war has been glued to the top news sources around the world, but the attention paid to it by the news media and by the public has not been congruent. According to google search indexing, public interest in the US and the UK peaked on February 24th, the day of the invasion, and has declined ever since. If the purpose of this media campaign is to ensure that the war holds the continual interest of the Anglo-American public, then they have failed.

Russia ‘Bad’

Of course, much has changed in public discourse in the last couple of months. The name ‘Russia’ has been entirely blackened in the minds of more or less everyone, but it was a name already near a midnight shade in the west. They have delivered the specter of death and war to the West in a way that they haven’t felt since the 1992 Soviet counterrevolution, and, because the war is fought on Ukrainian territory, there are going to be many thousands of Ukrainian civilian deaths, and approximately zero Russian ones (Though of course civilians continue to be killed in pro-Russian separatist territories). Given the years of Russia coverage behind us, all the media had to do was present some events as they were in order to manufacture consent for their position.

The decline in interest has been steady. Days of focus on the Bucha Massacre and talk of genocide made no discernible impact on search indexes. This is one problem that arises when a group is painted as unambiguously evil from the start: any crime they subsequently commit comes as no surprise.

On April 11th, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion claimed that Russians had dropped a chemical agent on them. The Western media credulously took this up and it led the headlines for a day or so. Yet, while our leaders and our mainstream media said that such a thing could never be tolerated, there was such no grand reaction from the public. Perhaps it is the case that since Russia has already been accused of every crime under the sun, including genocide, an accusation of a chemical attack doesn’t elicit much of a reaction. Of course, this wasn’t a real chemical attack, nor a particularly impressive or well-done fake accusation – rather a desperate jab by an encircled military unit with a Twitter account – but the reaction certainly gives us some data to think about.

A Failed Message

On the other hand, perhaps the media is primarily focused on influencing the elites rather than the public. In that case, aconstant focus on atrocities seems misplaced. Containing Russia is a policy aim for nearly every major political group in the west, so creating the perception that policymakers are plausibly going to be able to meet their policy aims would surely be more effective than telling a sob story.

The Ukrainian government’s approach here seems to be a strategic one. Reports of atrocities are immediately followed by a pivot into a demand for weapons, but the Western media can’t seem to take their eyes from the bodies. Ukraine won a major victory at the start of April. The Russians were forced to withdraw from the North in the face of dogged Ukrainian resistance, but the media only managed to speak about this victory for half a day before the revelation of large-scale civilian deaths in towns under Russian control directed their eyes back down to the bodies. Ironically these civilian deaths, in Bucha and elsewhere, and their mass display to Western elites and the public actually served to conceal Russia’s most embarrassing defeat of the war, and ultimately meant that the ideal time to launch a massive media campaign to arm the Ukrainians was missed.

The only real pressure for practical military help for Ukraine in Western media has been a pestering of Biden’s press secretary with the demand that the President end the world. A No-Fly Zone was never going to be an option for anyone with actual power in the West, and thank God for that, though there was enough bleating about the topic for Keir Starmer to say that he’d talk to Bojo about it.

Western coverage has sometimes seemed like “baby’s first war”. One day the BBC led with the headline ‘Russian tanks on the streets of Mariupol’, as if weeks into the war, in a major offensive zone, it was at all notable to report that there would be Russian tanks in the area. The Western coverage of Mariupol has been one of the strangest parts of the war. We might expect that the siege would be narrated constantly as a heroic battle against the odds by a surrounded force fighting a dogged defense. Instead, Mariupol seems only to come up in the western press when there is, or there is alleged to be, a major strike on civilians. The Western press seemed unable to overcome their humanitarian impulse, and report on what would be a perfect tool for creating a narrative of heroic defenders to push the west towards the military supply of Ukraine, as was desired by the Ukrainian Government.

As Ukrainian forces were pushed out of Mariupol city and into Azovstal, the media occasionally seemed like it would start to tell a war story, but the focus always flicked back to the civilians, something which became more and more absurd as the number of civilians living under Ukrainian control dwindled and dwindled. This absurdity has culminated now that Ukrainian forces only control the Azovstal Steel Plant, one of the wonders of Soviet Engineering, and certainly not a residential zone. There are likely still a few thousand Ukrainian fighters in Azovstal, and the media was even given a timeline reprieve by Putin himself on national television, as he personally ordered Russian forces not to storm the plant and instead to starve it out.

But this gift from the big man himself was not accepted and, instead, the focus has remained on the small number of civilians trapped in Azovstal. Even when civilians are literally outnumbered by soldiers the western media refuses to take the camera off them and refuses to tell a war story. Perhaps the fighters there should make sure the civilians leave the area and see if the western media would be finally willing to focus on them, but the likely reality would be that the many wounded and illsoldiers in the area would instead be recast as civilians or something like civilians, and the script would be run from the top again.

Why can’t the Western media tell a war story?

Perhaps the reluctance in this specific case is due to the fact that Mariupol is prominently defended by the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion alongside regular Ukrainian marines. This seems unlikely, though, as there has been a widescale operation in western media to launder the reputation of Azov and create the conception of Azov as nothing other than a group of patriots (while another line of media effort does their best to make it out that Azov only has, perhaps, a dozen members). These efforts have often been faltering. The Times ran a piece titled ‘Azov Battalion: “We are patriots – we’re fighting the real Nazis of the 21st century”, and led the piece with a title image showing Azov fighters at a funeral for one of their members. The only person in the image who isn’t wearing a military uniform is wearing an M8l8th shirt, a Russian National Socialist Black Metal band who moved to Ukraine in 2014 after the Maidan Revolution, the two 8s of course standing for HH, Heil Hitler. Of course, anyone with knowledge of these signs and signifiers would know the implications and the effort to convince us that Azov were not Nazis would probably not lead with an image of them proudly wearing a Nazi symbol.

This kind of misfiring is going on both sides. Both Westerners and Ukrainians seem to think that Ukraine, if only perhaps very recently, is part of the west, but there are different ideas of what this means. Ukrainians will publish – in English – posts calling Russians Orcs, their official institute for ‘national remembering’ will post, again in English, claims that the Ukrainian nation should be taken seriously because Ukrainians are of separate genetic origins to Russians and various other things good Europeans are no longer meant to say. While Russian massacres must be revealed by others, Ukrainian executions, and torture of Russian prisoners of war are released for local patriotic consumption by the Ukrainian forces themselves, but of course flow out of these places and into the western internet, evoking horror, and very commonly, denial.

This idea, that the Ukrainians are proper Westerners, is one idea I have for why the West seems incapable of telling a good old-fashioned war story in Ukraine. Part of my confusion is because I have seen the western media tell a good old-fashioned war story. They gave a blow-by-blow rapt account of the siege of Kobane by ISIS, and it seemed that the grand attention paid to those events was a major part in pushing US intervention in that fight. But of course, Syrians, Kurds; well, they aren’t Westerners, and, of course, wars are somehow ‘natural’ to the middle east, so what else would we expect?

Of course, in that case, the Western media was ready to tell us a good old war story. What other kind of event could come out of such a calamitous region? Conversely, Ukraine, at least since February 24th, is part of the West, and wars don’t happen in the west: foreign tanks don’t roll through the streets, cities aren’t besieged, soldiers don’t fight until their last bullet, and so on and so on. That perhaps is why the news story of Ukraine is told as if it was a terrorist attack, a flood, or a pandemic. They can’t tell us a good old war story, because good old-fashioned war stories just don’t happen in the West anymore.