Over the past few years, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell has perfected a particular genre of Pentagon PR, doing numerous glossy ride-along reports and softball sit-down interviews with military brass and promoting the Pentagon’s overall message that it simultaneously keeps the world free from Bad Guys and desperately needs more and more money to keep up with a rotating cast of villains.

If CBS was paid to make PR packages for the Pentagon, they wouldn’t look any different than this. 

Let’s begin by breaking down her most recent Pentagon infomercial—a 60 Minutes lead segment from last Sunday detailing how the US Navy is “protecting international waterways” from Yemeni Houthis. O’Donnell’s puffy ride-along has all the trappings of the genre: no critical questions, only superficial historical context, sexy b-roll of American technological power, sycophantic sit-down interviews with US military officers, and, of course, no humanization of or perspective from the Official Enemy—just presenting them as faceless Arabs hellbent on terror for its own sake.


Essential context, that President Biden’s refusal to back a ceasefire in Gaza is leading to an escalatory framework, isn’t explored at all. That there could be an alternative to blowing up even more of the poorest country on earth, that pushing to end the bloodshed in Gaza is one path to reducing piracy in the Red Sea (something the White House itself admits behind closed doors), is simply not an option. Because it’s not an option the military presents O’Donnell, and their word is total. 

This embarrassing segment comes on the heels of last year’s more overt—and explicit—Navy commercial where O’Donnell aggressively analyzed the “State of the Navy” and determined they were scrappy underdogs who needed more money and more support in Congress. 

O’Donnell’s questions in the fawning report fall into two general—and seemingly contradictory—categories of Kettle Logic military propaganda of the kind used by empires to describe themselves as always “falling behind” but also very slick and capable: (1) She uncritically accepts the premise that the US military is falling behind a “growing,” “increasing” military threat, and thus there is an urgent need to bloat the Pentagon budget to keep up; or (2) She examines how the latest sexy military tech is doing a wonderful job keeping everyone safe in their beds and upholds an alleged Liberal Rules-Based Order. In this segment we get tough-as-nails questions from O’Donnell such as:

  • “Do you get briefed on China’s growing military threat and the progress they are making?”
  • “How aggressive has China become, in the air?”
  • “How much do you worry about the People’s Liberation Army rocket force?” 
  • “How much more advanced is US submarine technology to Chinese capabilities?” 
  • “Is it your hope that the force posture of the US Navy will deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan?” 
  • “At some point are [the Chinese] going to reach numbers [of naval ships] that we can’t prevail over?” 
  • “How would you describe what China has been able to do militarily over the last 20 years?”
  • “Why is China able to build more warships more quickly than the US?” 

Later, when tossing even more softballs to hawkish lawmakers Democrat Elaine Luria and Republican Mike Gallagher, O’Donnell—looking Very Concerned—asks, “What is it about the US Navy that has allowed the two of you to find common cause?”  

Wow, really tough stuff. O’Donnell could have mentioned that Luria paid offher considerable campaign debt with super PAC money from Raytheon and General Dynamics, but this would involve actual journalism and we couldn’t have that. The closest O’Donnell gets to anything remotely approaching pushback is when she tees up a grapefruit for Admiral Samuel Paparo, the commander of US Pacific Fleet, by asking, with a wry, skeptical smile, “China has accused the United States of trying to contain them. What do you say to China?” 

Paparo gives a glib response, asking China: “Do you need to be contained?” O’Donnell nods along and it’s off to more b-roll of scary Chinese rockets.

Even the once-mainstream Cold War liberal idea of mutual antagonism, that hardliners in two Cold War countries could fuel each other’s paranoia and fear—regardless of who was the first mover—is an idea lost somewhere in the 1980s. Today’s great power standoff isn’t even allowed this possibility; it’s just evil Chinese communists all the way down.

The entire point, of course, is to lobby the public and, by implication, Congress, to shovel more money into the US military—a public debate which, such as it is, happens every summer. The tough journalistic posture O’Donnell is striking here is that of a reporter bravely taking on military skeptics. “60 Minutes spent months talking to current and former naval officers, military strategists, and politicians about the state of the US Navy,” she says to open the second half of the segment. “One common thread in our reporting is unease both about the size of the US fleet and its readiness to fight. The Navy ships are being retired faster than they’re getting replaced.”

So, O’Donnell talked to a bunch of conflicted parties who are funded by the military industrial complex and get rich off of it, and they said they need more money? Does O’Donnell talk to any peace activists or anti-escalation voices in Japan or the Philippines? Any senators opposed to the unprecedented large military budget? Anyone who thinks these billions could better be spent housing the poor? Or expanding medicare? Obviously not. 

O’Donnell’s wide-eyed aircraft carrier field trips are just a variation on an old media workover trope of The Media Ride-Along, perfected in the context of police departments by local TV news and shows like COPS and Live PD for years, which themselves are variations on military embedding reporting. Only O’Donnell isn’t even feigning like she’s on the front lines, or reporting on anything that can’t be gleaned from a Senate military report. She’s just there to lob handpicked military spokespeople softballs and take sweet b-roll of kick-ass military hardware.

The idea that China would be increasing its naval presence because of US expansion in the region, rather than it being the cause of US expansion, is never explored. That the US spends more on national defense than the next ten countries—China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, and Ukraine—combined is seen not as something that is per se threatening to other countries, but is a reluctant response of an altruistic global policeman. The possibility that this dynamic may be fueling Chinese fears of encirclement is not something O’Donnell feels needs to be asked, much less answered. She just assumes China has sinister goals of world domination and the US is simply a benevolent hall monitor enforcing “international law,” constantly reacting to diabolical threats from The Orient. Even the once-mainstream Cold War liberal idea of mutual antagonism, that hardliners in two Cold War countries could fuel each other’s paranoia and fear—regardless of who was the first mover—is an idea lost somewhere in the 1980s. Today’s great power standoff isn’t even allowed this possibility; it’s just evil Chinese communists all the way down.  

O’Donnell then bizarrely asserts that China ignored American diplomatic outreach over a “spy balloon”—a “spy balloon” the US government later acknowledged wasn’t actually doing any spying. “Chinese military leaders have been mostly silent, and have ignored efforts by the US military to keep the lines of communication open,” O’Donnell tells the viewer. “Even when a Chinese spy balloon entered US airspace, and was shot down by the US.” 

But other reports contradict the implication: Chinese officials discussed the alleged spy balloon incident with the White House and State Department and insisted it was just a weather balloon (a position, it’s worth nothing, supportedby US-based hawkish think tank CSIS). Is O’Donnell under the impression the US military engages in diplomacy? What does this even mean? It’s not clear; the narrative that China is an irrational belligerent actor pushing war and skirting diplomacy must be maintained.

To compound these fears, throughout the segment O’Donnell insists China “now has the biggest navy in the world,” which is true in the technical sense that it has the most boats, but as David Axe at Forbes notes:

There’s an important caveat in this hull tally. American vessels on average are much larger than Chinese vessels are. The smallest USN warship type—the Littoral Combat Ship—displaces 3,000 tons of water. The median USN ship—an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer—displaces up to 9,500 tons. The smallest PLAN ship in the DoD count is the Type 056 corvette, displacing 1,500 tons. The median PLAN ship is a Type 045 frigate displacing around 4,000 tons. In all, the U.S. fleet weighs in at around 4.5 million tons. The Chinese fleet might slightly exceed 2 million tons.

All of these nuances and qualifications are lost. Instead, the viewer is fed only panic-inducing talking points of an axiomatically expansionist and sinister Chinese threat and a brave US empire that simply needs more money to keep up. This kettle logic, inherent in all military propaganda, is central to every single talking point O’Donnell gets across: The US military is simultaneously all-seeing and all-powerful but also woefully underfunded and in urgent need of hundreds of billions more dollars.  

This isn’t to say O’Donnell has never criticized the military, but when she does it’s internal issues, not criticisms of its fundamental purpose. In 2020, she did a series on a failure of the Defense Department to properly investigate rape and assault cases in its ranks—a report she followed up in 2021 and again last December. Good reporting, no doubt, but nothing genuinely subversive to hawks in Congress or military leadership who tolerate this type of house cleaning so long as the budget remains unaffected. 

There are too many other military infomercials to count. On Oct. 8, 2023, O’Donnell had a sit-down with retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Here, again, no difficult questions were asked—except, of course, consistent with the media’s consensus on Biden, an attack from the right on the US withdrawal process from Afghanistan. But Milley’s spin was front-loaded on the segment, with O’Donnell telling viewers that “in 2021, Gen. Milley had counseled President Biden to keep 2,500 troops in and around Kabul,” as if preventing the Taliban takeover, long viewed as inevitable, was that easy. 

In March of last year, O’Donnell did the obligatory imperial feminism segment about women rising up the ranks of the Pentagon, featuring a vacuous sit-down interview with “the four highest-ranking women in the US military to discuss learning lessons of resilience, battling discrimination with determination, and cultivating the next generation of leaders in the military.”

CBS News has a recurring segment called “Profiles in Service” that’s directly sponsored by weapons-maker Raytheon (now—after years of bad press—rebranded RTX), where O’Donnell does puff pieces on various military personnel.

Last December, O’Donnell did a workout segment for CBS Nightly News with “badass” US Marine Corps Captain Riley Tejcek, another “report” that looks indistinguishable from a military zoomer recruitment campaign.

She hosted CBS Evening News directly from a US military base in Bahrain on Jan. 29 where she, according to CBS’s press release, “got rare access to the United States Naval Forces Central Command and the United States Fifth Fleet.”

O’Donnell, who once did a rose-tinted nostalgic segment on the military base she grew up on in South Korea, clearly doesn’t think critically about any potential downsides to the US’s obscene Pentagon budget—which is predicted to top $1 trillion in the coming years. The sprawling global US military architecture is simply seen as a law of nature, an obvious and unquestionable good that is a force of order and humanitarianism. That it could, for example, be propping up ethnic cleansing in Gaza, is too unbearable to imagine, so this part of their duties is glossed over, bracketed as an unfortunate but separate part of their core function, and stripped from the context of broader regional conflict. After all, the Pentagon is just a humble enforcer of the Liberal Rules-Based Order. That it could do illiberal things, prop up illiberal ends, and work to defend myopic, brutal. and petty US imperial interests flies in the face of this cheesy 8th grade book report narrative. And to strip this narrative apart, or challenge it in serious ways, would be too messy, too unpleasant. And, most frightening of all, may involve doing actual journalism.

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