I’d just gotten up, and, as per my usual morning routine, was laying in bed scrolling through Instagram instead of getting dressed like I knew I should’ve. Friends celebrating birthdays, pictures of a snow-blanketed Wellesley — and then, the Washington Post. “A nation divided, the US is together on Ukraine.” That was certainly enough to shake the sleep from my body, as I grimaced with pain at the state of the world and, simultaneously, at the astounding ability of news media to find some ‘new wave of hope’ for this country’s future every few months. I turned to John Oliver to make me laugh and forget about the world, tuning in to Last Week Tonight just as he began to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I laughed — and then immediately felt two inches tall for laughing — at the horrifying and, as he termed it, “aggressively American” CNN decision to cut to an Applebee’s commercial while airing footage of air raid sirens ringing out in Kyiv. A man in a cowboy hat was shaking his ass to some sort of country anthem about fried chicken, and in a corner of the screen — in a smaller box than the slow-motion video of chicken wings being slathered in a bright orange sauce — a still-playing video of the attacks on Kyiv and the words “Russia Invades Ukraine.”
It was a mistake, a split moment of poor decision-making and, as Applebee’s later commented, “never should have aired.” But I can’t help but notice signs of a similar tone-deafness and lack of sensitivity throughout American media, most recently brought to the forefront by the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. American media has lost the ability to report on global affairs with any sort of nuance or perspective; the center of the story is always this country, or, otherwise, the rest of the so-called “West,” and it is both an abominable epidemic and an embarrassment to the institution of journalism and truth-seeking. It is indisputable, at this point, how strong the bias in Western media is towards Eurocentrism, as plainly evidenced by the disturbing differences in the reporting on Syria and Afghanistan’s crises as compared to the current devastation in Ukraine. But the phenomenon is still rampant and identifiable in reporting on Ukraine’s crisis, as America continuously centers itself in issues of global catastrophe and international upheaval. A flurry of frankly ridiculous articles detailing the fall of vodka in America as a result of Putin’s cruelty and the stand American bars have taken against Russian drinks make a mockery of the pain and suffering Ukrainians are being forced to endure.
The more “serious” reporting on the crisis doesn’t echo the same level of insensitivity, but still succumbs to the fallacy of manifest destiny and paints America as the center of the world. Some articles actively ignore Ukraine altogether: A New York Times article on what the Russian invasion means for the US economy, for example, seems to paint Ukraine as an unfortunate byproduct of the long-standing struggle between Russia and the US, barely even touching on the economic devastation that has befallen Ukraine itself. A CNN article meant to cover the widespread effects of Ukraine’s invasion discussed the detrimental effects this was having on America, ranging from the inflated gas prices to the threat of World War III, extensively throughout — but failed to mention the rest of the world in any significant way, despite the title of the article being “Why Putin’s long-feared attack on Ukraine will rock America and the world.” Too often, American media seems to forget that those two — America and the world — are not separate. The phrase gives away just how much of our modern media, despite often masquerading as progressive and global, still subscribes to the incredibly harmful myth of American exceptionalism.
These major news organizations often highlight American bipartisanship and performative support in response to the genocide that Russia is perpetrating against Ukraine — and in doing so, actively divert the journalistic effort away from the impact it could be having, by sharing resources on aid and relief or providing a nuanced perspective on American involvement in manifesting the current crisis as well as foreign policy initiatives moving forward. Pieces on how the humanitarian crisis has united our divided country and how the political left has been grappling with the attacks are plentiful and serve no real purpose other than to reframe a matter of utter devastation for Ukraine as some sort of twisted political equalizer for America. The ability of this country’s citizens to agree on this uncontested pillar of American individualism — the ubiquitous “Russia and communism are bad” — is not indicative of some new era of unity or bipartisan peace, it is remnants of a Cold War that never really ended and proof of an inegalitarian, patriarchal system that survives on capitalistic thought. Framing the mass genocide of countless civilian lives as silver-lined in the best cases and a tool for American advancement in the worst is more than disrespectful — it’s cruel. Benjamin J. Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House, commented on how Putin’s invasion “has necessitated an American return to the moral high ground” in a Washington Post article entitled “Ukraine War Ushers in New Era for US Abroad.” The rhetoric of the headline and Rhodes’ words clearly indicate a blatant disregard for the reality of the situation, and a desperate attempt to frame this war in American terms. An article in the New York Times claims this is “A Moment for America to Believe in Itself Again.” It is not a moment “for America” at all. It’s time for this country to use its resources to take action and help the lives it has helped to endanger, and stop putting itself at the center of it all.
Not every display of aggressive Americanness is a mid-invasion cutaway to $1 boneless wings. Sometimes, it’s a politician’s statement that sits weirdly in your stomach when you hear it. It’s a headline that makes you wonder “what about everybody else?” It is high time we hold our news media to a higher standard, and force them to challenge their own biases and assumptions about what makes a story and who they tell stories about. As an institution, our journalism still very much places America on a pedestal — and it is our responsibility and in our best interest to create critical cracks in that glorified image and encourage the news to perpetuate a more nuanced, balanced and ultimately correct view of the world.