Racism, hypocrisy, and lies: What to watch out for in Western media coverage of Ukraine

Can English-language news outlets change largely anti-war public opinion by beating the drums of war between two nuclear powers?

March 03, 2022 by Natalia Marques
Journalist questions US President Joe Biden after Russia escalates military conflict, asking, “If sanctions cannot stop President Putin, what penalty can?”

Before the Russian military escalation in Ukraine, the people of NATO countries felt apprehensive at best about the possibility of military involvement of their own governments in the conflict. Only a quarter of the people of the United States, the most well-armed of the NATO countries, supported the US playing a major role in Ukraine, according to a poll taken before the Russian military escalation. Results from a poll referenced in the Spectator on February 17 show that a plurality of people in the United Kingdom would oppose troops being deployed if Russia were to invade Ukraine. For Europeans, a poll from early February shows that while most believe NATO should defend Ukraine from a Russian invasion, most believe such a defense is not worthwhile if there is a threat of Russian military action.

These polls were taken before the Russian government escalated the military conflict in Ukraine. It is unclear what the people living in NATO countries support as of now. However, the numbers are apparent. There was no broad base of support for NATO military action before the Russian escalation.

All the same, English-language news media seems to be doing it’s level best to create this broad support, or at the very least, to distract from the NATO aggression which led to this conflict. Through a mixture of racist tropes, censorship, and blatant falsehoods, the people of NATO countries, and especially in the highly militarized United States, are provided with a steady stream of pro-war rhetoric.

Below is a round-up of some of the most notable examples.

1. Beating the drums of war

From the very start of the conflict, on February 24, after President Joe Biden announced comprehensive sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, the press lined up to beat the drums of war. A reporter from ABC News asked Biden, “Clearly, sanctions have not been enough to deter Vladmir Putin at this point. What is going to stop him, how and when does this end, and do you see him trying to go beyond Ukraine?” Another reporter asked, “You’re confident that these devastating sanctions are going to be as devastating as Russian missiles and bullets and tanks?” Yet another asked Biden, “If sanctions cannot stop President Putin, what penalty can?”

Although the United States has not yet taken military action against Russia, it is not for lack of trying on the part of Western media. Apart from urging escalation beyond sanctions, the English-language press has published hastily-corrected misinformation, including how Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island were all killed in a Russian attack, when in reality, all had survived.

A confrontation between nuclear powers would be devastating for the entire world. Yet, time and again, English-speaking media has subtly, or not-so-subtly urged escalation. On February 28, NBC News reporter Richard Engel tweeted, “A massive Russian convoy is abt 30 miles from Kyiv. The US/NATO could likely destroy it. But that would be direct involvement against Russia and risk, everything. Does the West watch in silence as it rolls?” Is the West truly “watching in silence” if it is imposing massive sanctions, which could have a devastating impact on the people of Russia and the world? And if so, what is the alternative?

Other news outlets have promoted the voices of those pushing for NATO countries to impose a no-fly zone, similar to the no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, the enforcement of which led to the destruction of that country. The enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine implies a direct confrontation with Russian military aircraft, which would be devastatingly violent, primarily for the people of Ukraine.

2. Hypocrisy

“When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime,” said a Fox News reporter, to the agreement of Condoleeza Rice, one of the key architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The English-language press has shown that all invasions are not treated equally. As Palestinian journalist Asmaa Yassin writes in Mondoweiss, “for over a week the Israeli occupation has killed, attacked, and arrested a number of Palestinian people, most of whom are minors, yet this news was barely mentioned even in the corner of the news screen.”

When those victim to invasions and occupations by NATO countries or allies resist, they are labeled as terrorists. Ukrainians, who also have a right to resist military invasion, are glorified for their “stalwart faith in their ability to resist Russia”. UK outlet Sky News went as far as showing, in detail, footage of Ukrainian civilians making molotov cocktails. Such coverage of those resisting invasion in places invaded by NATO countries, such as Iraq, Syria, or Libya is unheard of. As journalist Ali Abunimah tweeted, “Have you ever seen such glowing and supportive coverage of even unarmed Palestinian resistance to Western-backed Israeli occupation?”

3. Racism

“This isn’t a place…like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European…city,” said CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata as Russian forces closed in on Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

News outlets in NATO countries have let numerous racist remarks slip about the conflict in Ukraine and demonstrated a racist double standard with the tone and content of their reporting. Reporters and journalists are seemingly shocked and confused about how such a violence is occurring in a European country, or a country populated by “people with blue eyes and blonde hair” as a Ukrainian official on BBC put it.

English-language media has also downplayed the racist reality in Ukraine, a country in which openly fascist groups like the Azov Battalion are incorporated into the military and police forces. The BBC quickly deleted a tweet directly referencing a Nigerian student who, after dealing with the Ukrainian military in trying to find refuge from the invasion in Poland, said, “They were just so heartless…they treated us like animals.”

4. Censorship and lies

News media which receives funds from the Russian government, such as Russia Today, Sputnik News, and Redfish, have been censored by companies such as Google, Meta and Twitter, sanctioned by the European Union, and completely blocked by broadcasting services such as DStv. Long before the recent military escalation, these outlets have been labeled as “Russian state-affiliated media” or “Russian state-controlled media” for their ties to the Russian government. Outlets such as the BBC in the UK or NPR in the US, which are also funded by their respective governments, have never been labeled as such.

Read more: By banning Russian media outlets, EU exposes its discomfort with alternative narratives of the Ukrainian crisis

While some media is censored, Western media is free to promote falsehoods. After President Vladmir Putin’s announcement of the invasion, in which he references NATO expansion towards Russia as a key reason, the New York Times reported, “​​Mr. Putin spends a substantial portion of his speech retelling the past 30 years as a history of false Western promises to divide Europe in a stable balance between American and Russian spheres of influence.” After a quick look through declassified US government documents, however, it is clear that these “Western promises” are anything but false, and that there were decades of promises made to Russia that NATO would not expand eastward. It is without this necessary context that English-language media reports on the Ukraine conflict.

5. China and the New Cold War

“Trump says he believes China will invade Taiwan” reads a March 2 headline on The Hill. Another from March 2 on Fox News reads, “China is ‘big winner’ of Russia-Ukraine war, former FBI agent who worked in China warns”.

China is not part of the conflict in Ukraine. In fact, China has expressed concern for loss of life in Ukraine and labeled the conflict a war, rather than sticking with the Russian government label “special military operation”. After a quick look through the Western media, however, can lead the uninformed to believe that China is working closely in support of Russia, or even that China plans to lead a military invasion of its own. Several recent articles in Western Media have hinted at Taiwan as a potential site of a future Chinese invasion. The UK tabloid The Daily Mail writes, “US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the island’s president Tsai Ing-wen to warn that Taiwan must not be allowed to suffer the same fate as Ukraine following Russia’s barbaric invasion of the country.” Reuters reports, “The United States stands firmly behind its commitments to Taiwan, a visiting U.S. delegation said on Wednesday, as Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen vowed to work more closely with allies in response to what she called China’s growing military threat,” later admitting that “Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory, is on alert in case Beijing tries to use the opportunity of the Ukraine crisis to make a move on the island, though the government has reported no unusual Chinese activity.” [emphasis added]

Peoples Dispatch has previously written on the West’s “New Cold War” against China. Western hegemonic power views China, as a country that is developing and even prospering independently of US and NATO influence, as a threat. The mainstream English-language media appears to be using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity to double down on this threatening portrayal of China.

In light of the rhetoric of the New Cold War, it is important to be crystal clear: China has expressed no desire to invade Taiwan, nor is there concrete proof that China had any role in the military conflict in Ukraine, beyond vague “Western intelligence reports” that claim China had previous knowledge of Russian military action.

It is unclear, post-Russian escalation, what public opinion in NATO countries is towards NATO military intervention in Ukraine. But if the devastation wrought in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is any testament, such escalation would be disastrous, primarily for the Ukrainian people.

Western media appears to push towards further conflict, not only with Russia, but with any country that does not toe the line laid out by NATO. However, the people of the West are not united in a love of NATO, and many have protested NATO expansion. As Brian Becker, longtime US-based anti-war activist, articulated:

“The war danger, which emanates from here in the United States, is premised on the justification and rationale provided to the American people by the establishment and echoed by the media…By winning working class and poor people over to our side, by carrying out that kind of political education, we build a mighty force that can actually make change.”