Why Is Jon Stewart Peddling Drones?

On Friday, I wrote about the ongoing effort by American foreign policy elites to redefine war to the point where nearly any violent action abroad goes by some-other-name.  The goal is to add air strikes, assassinations, and special forces raids to the list of 'normal' operations the U.S. government can undertake in other countries - to stand alongside 'diplomatic' threats and bullying, limitless spying, trade sanctions, black ops, and the like.

Because drone strikes fit into this category (in fact, they may be the prime example), and because the government cannot sweep them under the rug as they would like to thanks to popular outcry, there's now an intense campaign to alleviate concerns over their use, making them more palatable to the American public.

Last week, Jon Stewart had Missy Cummings, an ex-fighter pilot and current Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, on The Daily Show to discuss drones and their various applications.  Cummings was, on the same night, featured in a NOVA documentary entitled Rise of the Drones, which was given as the rationale for having her on the show to indulge in a complete whitewash of the U.S. drone program.  You may know the drill:  drones are more precise than humans, they keep The Troops safe from harm, the government couldn't possibly sift through all that surveillance footage they take, etc.

Rise of the Drones tells pretty much the same story.  Kevin Gosztola calls it "Mostly a PBS infomercial for the Military Defense Industry", and fittingly so.  The documentary was funded in part by Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. military contractor (yes, American "public" television is funded via private sponsorship).  Lockheed - which donated to the political campaigns of at least 386 of 435 members of the House of Representatives last election cycle - produces and designs drones itself, and obviously has a stake in how their use is perceived among the populace.

The program itself seems to have been structured to both appeal to technophiles, and set up and contradict the main fears people have regarding drone usage.  Emphasis was placed on the fact that drones are just technology, and can help in ways that aren't related to military matters.  Concerns over surveillance were addressed.  The disconnect between the reality on the ground and the video screen half the world away was downplayed with the usual assurances, alongside appeals to 'military ethics committees'.

Cummings' appearance on The Daily Show mirrored this dialogue - you couldn't have scripted it better if you tried.  When she did decide to discuss the death and destruction (not to credit Stewart, who didn't ask any of the tough questions), it was only to note that she thinks there is "less collateral damage", and that drone use limits the deaths of American troops in the line of fire.  Just as with war in general, the answer to "Should we accept drone strikes?" seems to be "Sure, if it helps keep Americans safe!"

And of course, it's easy to think there are less civilians (who are not 'collateral damage') killed when the media makes a habit of consistently under-reporting [PDF] their deaths, not to mention accepting both the government's definitions and reports of who was killed.

Even so, the precision argument - wrong as it may be for now - says nothing about who is being killed, and how that decision is made.  Here we have no mention of the disposition matrix, the bribery involved with bounties, or the decision to specifically target and kill a 16-year-old for simply being related to a member of al-Qaida.  Drone technology isn't changing any of this, as Gosztola notes:
With drones, the process may be able to happen more quickly, but the intelligence being used to kill people believed to be terrorists or militants is the product of similar intelligence procedures, which helped the administration of President George W. Bush imprison hundreds of innocent people at Guantanamo Bay.

Actually, drones might have made things worse.  By utilizing 'signature strikes' - targeting a completely unidentified person based solely on their pattern of behavior as seen from above - drone operators have set a dangerous new precedent, wherein anyone within certain areas may be killed simply for 'acting suspicious'.  Whereas pilots previously lacked the ability to watch their targets for hours beforehand, now they can do so - and decide the fates of the tiny people below, as if gods.

Even assuming the best case scenario - that drones would eventually be able to assassinate with absolute precision, and provide perfect intelligence so that they always target 'enemies' - there is still the problem of the fact these are assassinations.  Due process is not something afforded to any of those on the kill-list.  This simple realization becomes lost when we sit in our comfortable chairs and spend all of our time discussing hypotheticals, worrying about what will happen if 'the wrong people get a hold of this technology' - as Stewart did during this interview.  We never stop to think whether or not 'the wrong people' have gotten a hold on this technology.  You know, the only ones ever to deploy a nuclear weapon on other human beings (and directly on cities, at that).

This is the type of lacking perspective you expect from most talking heads, not from someone whose claim to fame is that of criticizing the mainstream media.  Granted, it is true enough that The Daily Show has never really set out to challenge the more subtle problems that plague our common discourse.  It does a great job at showing media hypocrisy on an obvious level, but certainly makes no Chomskyite revelations on the deeper forces at work.  However, I've grown to expect a little more from Stewart et al. than I do your average news team.  The Daily Show is, after all, far above the rest in its self-awareness.

But what we have here is media bias 101.  You choose what will be aired, and how it will be framed.  You don't have to talk about drones at all, of course (that would be unfortunate as well), but when you do, the angle which you take is also of your design.  When you gloss over the most important aspects of a particular issue, you can't feign ignorance.  There are simply no coincidences when putting together a production of this magnitude.

Thus, the Daily Show decided on Missy Cummings, and then on giving her a free pass to discuss drones in a positive light.  Jon Stewart decided not to push her on anything at all, and focused instead on implying American exceptionalism and painting drones in a mockingly dystopian light.  The entire schtick seemed set up to get Cummings to allay Stewart's 'fears' on the sci-fi-seeming nature of drones in the sky - and even then, neither brought up biometrics or anything related.  Worse yet, this isn't the first time Jon Stewart has balked on drones.  Last June, he brought up the topic to poke fun at Fox News for running what was actually a (somewhat) reasonable segment on domestic drone use.  Why, when The Daily Show decides to talk about drones, does it not give the topic the coverage it deserves?

The worst part in all this might be that a majority (62% according to Pew) of the American public already supports the drone campaign.  A sizable percentage of The Daily Show's viewers are probably among the remaining 38%, and exactly the audience which those who want drones to be more widely accepted would like to reach.  But either way: an open, comprehensive discussion on drones is the last thing they wish for, and if even Jon Stewart isn't going to give people even a glimpse of that, what hope is there for the rest of the media?

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