Drone Kill List: Not News?

The New York Times‘ lengthy report (5/29/12) on Barack Obama’s drone “kill list” should provoke serious questions: Is such a program legal? How does it square with Obama’s criticism of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies? Is the White House covering up the killing of civilians by labeling them “militants”? Why is the United States continuing an assassination policy described as Al-Qaeda’s top “recruiting tool”?

But those questions have been raised only in fits and starts around the rest of the media. One of the co-authors of the Times piece, Scott Shane, appeared on the PBS NewsHour and on NPR‘s All Things Considered (5/29/12). But the story has not been mentioned on any of the broadcast networks, save for a discussion about Obama’s drone policy on CBS‘s Face the Nation (6/3/12).

The Times report was mentioned in a few CNN segments but was ignored almost entirely on the liberal cable news channel MSNBC, outside of the non-liberal Morning Joe (5/29/12), and a broader debate about drones on the June 2 episode of Up With Chris. None of the channel’s primetime shows took it on.

A more interesting discussion could sometimes be heard on Fox News Channel. Some Fox personalities defended the policy, like Fox “liberal” Bob Beckel (5/29/12): “I mean, that’s what presidents do.” He went on to criticize conservatives who raise questions about it:

To even suggest that somehow there is something wrong with a kill list, for you to suggest that, shows you how rabidly anti-Obama you are.

Like some other Fox discussions, that one considered what the reaction would be if we were reading about George W. Bush’s drone kill list. A Special Report panel (5/29/12) featured criticism of the policy from the ACLU. The next day, correspondent James Rosen (Special Report, 5/30/12) looked at the “fuzzy math” the White House uses to count civilian deaths. The Fox media criticism show Fox News Watch led with this (6/3/12):

The New York Times reveals President Obama has a kill list, targeted terrorists who could be taken out by U.S. drones. The story igniting concerns over legality, morality, security and, with an election just months away, the timing.

Unfortunately, that conversation mostly failed to ignite in the rest of media. What was more newsworthy than the president personally approving drone strikes on specific individuals? Plenty of things. MSNBC‘s primetime shows seemed to have more than enough coverage of Donald Trump’s “birther” nonsense.

MSNBC seems to be following the adage that ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ But it’s remarkable that they and other outlets find so little to talk about. One of the most profound admissions in the Times article concerns how the administration tallies the victims. As the paper reported, Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties:”

It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

ABC correspondent Jake Tapper (5/29/12) questioned White House press secretary Jay Carney about this. While that exchange was revealing, it did not seem to prompt any followup coverage.

As Salon.com‘s Glenn Greenwald (5/29/12) argued, this finding is of vital importance to understanding media coverage of the drone war. Given that news outlets often rely on government-supplied information about who has been killed or injured in a given attack, this White House admission means that headlines announcing the death of a certain number of “militants” in a given strike really only indicate that a number of men were killed.

This raises profound, disturbing questions about how media cover the White House’s drone wars. Which could explain why it is getting so little attention from the press.