The Western Media at War

Stefan Bertram-Lee

May 3, 2022

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, a constant 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 di