Domestic wars are depressingly unfixable. Foreign wars...
...they make America feel great.
This week marked three months since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine got going. All this time, it’s been a real pleasure to watch America’s media just totally and completely fall in love with this war. Day in day out, major papers and news outlets have given the war top billing — with minor Ukrainian and Russian advances and losses and play-by-play analysis getting more prominent headline placement than pretty much all other news, especially domestic news.
For me this love affair was on full display last Tuesday afternoon, right after the elementary school massacre in Texas.
That day I went to the New York Times to find out what was going on. I looked at the homepage. But other than a tiny ticker tape item at the top of the page, I didn’t see news about it at all. My Twitter feed was filled with horrible news. And here was the New York Times…not really giving a damn? It couldn’t be. It was only when I scrolled down the page — an iPad’s worth of screen — past an interactive “heat map” of battles in Ukraine, past news about another round of sanctions on Russian bonds and other Ukraine-related headlines — that I found out that yeah, the paper was covering the story. So the editors there did give a damn. But not as much of a damn as they did about Ukraine.
May 24, 3:56pm, Texas time.
About an hour or maybe a little less, things did change. The school shooting started getting top placement and began to push the war in Ukraine to second place, below the fold. And over the next day, coverage of the massacre took over the first few sections of the New York Times’ front page entirely, edging the war in Ukraine mostly out of sight.
But that only started happening when the death toll jumped from 2 to 14 and then to 19. Would editors have bothered to move the story to the top of the page, if the death count had stayed low? Or would they have kept it as secondary news item?
So yesterday coverage of the massacre took up most of the New York Times’ homepage. But now, two days later, the Ukraine war news block is already creeping back up, edging out the shooting and various gun rights stories that had dominated the space just yesterday. In just a few more days, I’m sure the shooting will be relegated to secondary status and news of Ukraine and Russia will once again reign supreme.
Why does this headline positioning bother me so much? What do I care that some front page editor didn’t react fast enough? Maybe I’m being too sensitive and reading too much into it. But I don’t know…to me this headline business, in its own little way, captures something essential about the times we’re in.
There isn’t an area of life in this place called America that isn’t fucked. There’s total dysfunction all around. On any major issue things just keep getting worse: poverty, corruption, pollution, environmental collapse, global warming, domestic gun massacres, and the runaway consumption and commodification of every aspect of life. This society can’t even produce baby formula — dehydrated cow milk with vitamins! — without resorting to looting, pumping out tainted product, and putting kids at risk. The politics of this place are bleak as hell. There’s nothing but systemic failure and stagnation on every level, papered over with lies and self-deception.
Compared with this Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is probably the only feel-good story in America today. It’s the only “win” they got. It’s got bipartisan support, too. And it’s a good war. America’s the good guy in it, helping an underdog fight against undemocratic savages from the east. And best of all, America’s ruling class doesn’t need to sacrifice anything or put anything on the line or do much of anything, other than hand over cash to gun makers and weapons companies. It’s a fight that requires no domestic changes at all. In fact the war only boosts America’s power, making Europe more dependent on American energy and American weapons. So it’s wins all around. Nothing but wins.1
So the media has descended on this tragedy in Texas — or, like the Vanderbilt’s Anderson Cooper, platinum-parachuted into it. They’ll interview the devastated parents, do their live stand-ups, write their stories, and parasitically feed their corporate Perky Pat Fear and Outrage Edition layouts with as much content as they can. Then they’ll retreat back to New York and LA or DC and repeat the ritual all over again with some other domestic horror — a horror that’ll fade just as quickly from our Perky Pat media world, while still festering and getting worse when the cameras aren’t looking.
I’m guessing by Monday the shooting story will disappear off the New York Times’ front page and Ukraine will again be king of the fold. Domestic wars are depressingly unfixable. Foreign wars — and especially this one — make America’s ruling class feel great.
May 24, 2:55pm: Ukraine starts to sink.
May 25, 9:14pm: the shooting dominates.
May 26, 8:26am: Ukraine starts to creep back up.