When I was 10 years old, I saw my dad on TV. On the nightly news, to be exact.
I was sitting in the living room of my great-aunt’s house in Southern Indiana reading a book when I heard an unmistakable voice shouting over a crowd. I looked up and saw Dad, fully clad in Army gear, standing on the hood of a jeep as he passed out food to Iraqi civilians. I felt my breath leave my chest at the sound of a voice I hadn’t heard in months.
It was unusual for me to be watching the news. After the war started and my dad deployed to Iraq, we outlawed all the major networks in our house. No CNN. No CBS. No MSNBC. No Fox News. My family didn’t need to see the violence of war play out under a sensationalized voiceover. We could feel it constantly bubbling under the surface of our daily interactions.
I quickly learned that the media didn’t speak for me or for my family. Mainstream media outlets polarized the public on the subject of the Iraq War and silenced anti-war sources.
A 2003 Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting study found that 64 percent of the sources featured on six major American evening-news programs during the first three weeks of the Iraq War were in favor of the invasion. In contrast, anti-war sources made up only 10 percent of the sources used during this period. Of the 840 U.S. sources featured who were current or former government officials, only four held anti-war opinions.
As a 10-year-old, I didn’t really care about the politics. I just wanted my dad to come home, and I wanted access to stories that would help me cope with the complex and tumultuous reality in which I was living.
Instead, every time I overheard an interview on the radio or caught a glimpse of the constant news coverage, I heard relentless championing of the invasion of Iraq. I didn’t hear the voices of Iraqi civilians, or the many nations that didn’t support what the U.S. was doing. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the forces driving these conversations on the news, but I did understand that this meant my dad wouldn’t be coming home soon.
My junior year of college, I was lucky enough to attend Free Press’ National Conference on Media Reform in Denver. In her keynote speech, Amy Goodman said, “This is no longer a mainstream media. This is an extreme media beating the drums for war.” And she’s right — between network investment in weapon production and the exploitative narratives that made me feel disconnected from everyone but my immediate family, mainstream media outlets generally fail to present narratives that run counter to their interests.
In the 13 years since I saw my dad on the nightly news, I’ve struggled to completely renounce imperialism while still acknowledging how I’ve materially benefited from my close connections to the military. It’s a question that exists outside of the yellow ribbons tied around trees, the “honk if you support our troops” bumper stickers, and the emotional montages of soldiers returning home. It’s also about more than simply making anti-war voices more visible.
But the polarizing approach found in mainstream media coverage doesn’t leave room for the nuance required to tackle these questions, and it won’t until news outlets do a better job of serving the public interest.