The Military, the Media, and War

Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon has contracted a Washington-based PR firm, the Rendon Group, to analyze the news reports of embedded journalists and rate their coverage according to the categories of “positive,” “neutral” or “negative”:

Rendon examines individual reporters’ recent work and determines whether the coverage was “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” compared to mission objectives, according to Rendon officials. It conducts similar analysis of general reporting trends about the war for the military and has been contracted for such work since 2005, according to the company.

Apparently, the end result of these analyses includes pie charts like this:

piechart

And of course this has unleashed the mandatory tantrum that occurs whenever there is a hint of the military manipulating information, complete with the normal platitudes about the First Amendment, journalistic integrity, and the vital role of an independent media in a healthy democracy:

Professional groups representing journalists are decrying the Pentagon’s screening of reporters.

That’s the government doing things to put out the message they want to hear and that’s not the way journalism is meant to work in this country,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director for Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

“The whole concept of doing profiles on reporters who are going to embed with the military is alarming,” said Ron Martz, president of the Military Reporters and Editors association.

It speaks to this whole issue of trying to shape the message and that’s not something the military should be involved with,” he said.

Of course, everyone knows that journalists are immaculate human beings, relentless and wholehearted in their singular pursuit of objective truth, beholden to no law or obstruction in the performance of this righteous duty, the Holy Writ for which having derived from the Constitution itself.

That said, forgive me for not rending my clothes, gnashing my teeth, and pulling out my hair. The military is endlessly harangued by critics – many of them journalists – about being “stuck in a Cold War mindset,” slow to adapt to the “new realities” of war in the 21st century. This criticism is undeserved; the military has learned, and what Vietnam taught it was that in a protracted insurgency, the center of gravity is U.S. political will, which is informed almost exclusively by the media. The news dispatches from the battlefield have become as important as the tactical result of the battle itself. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, again and again, soldiers have emerged victorious from hellish firefights, only to be defeated in the next day’s headlines.

Any honest journalist will tell you that they aspire to be as objective as possible, but they occasionally fall victim to biases, perhaps even subconscious ones. After all, perfect objectivity is an ideal that can be approached but never touched, much like objective truth itself. 

The problem is that, lately, “objective journalism” is more like an Orwellian fiction instead of a universal ideal. Bowing to people’s predisposition to tune out unwelcome data, media organizations have increasingly structured their output to cater to partisan audiences. A few have developed right-leaning biases, the overwhelming majority lean the other direction. At the same time, however, journalists seem less and less willing to acknowledge ANY bias whatsoever, as if denying the ugly truth will make it go away. 

Indeed, an objective press is a vital component of a stable democracy. But instead of reciting this platitude whenever their work is questioned, journalists should actually ponder what would happen to democracy without a neutral media. It’s not just Big Brother that threatens free inquiry; as media organizations increasingly settle into their own segmented audiences, the nightmare is coming to pass, and journalists will have only themselves to blame. The fact is that media outlets have become political power centers in their own right, each actively pursuing a unique agenda. And when the outcome of a war is at stake, should the military be faulted for taking this into account?

Whenever I read of issues concerning the military’s relations with the press, I am reminded of a very pointed letter by Col. Michael D. Mahler published in Army magazine a few years ago. Responding to an earlier letter that defended the media’s “traditionally adversarial” relationship with the military, Mahler shared some of his own experiences:

In 1970, at the Command and General Staff College, those of us just back from Vietnam were treated to one of the Army’s cyclical initiatives to help us understand the media. Part of that initiative was to invite speakers from the media. One was the vice president of CBS news. The audience was polite, but skeptical, since most of us had just experienced the media firsthand in Vietnam.

I, for example, had investigated one of the alleged ear-cutting events that made all the papers – the one that had resulted from a television camera crew persuading the specialist fourth class public affairs escort to do the deed on a handy dead enemy soldier. The crew had arrived, as always, well after the action was over and was looking for some footage to get them on the air.

With that background, one of my classmates asked the vice president why it was that successes were never reported, but failures were always headline material. The answer was that old saw about dog bites man is not news; Man bites dog is.

Mahler goes on to recount how Geraldo Rivera and Mike Wallace sensationally reported drug and race relation issues that were facing U.S. Army Europe in the early 1970s, issues that were eventually resolved:

Neither of these stories reflected any of the efforts being made to resolve our admitted problems. Both of them were sensational enough to beat out any competition for prime air time and ensure “crusader” status amongst professional peers. And neither gave any credit to the soldier who was trying to just get along or stay drug free . Doesn’t that go a bit beyond the “adversarial” relationship that Mr. Ricks so prizes? And doesn’t it begin to explain the defensiveness that has, admittedly, resulted in the military establishment not being as forthcoming as it might?

The embeds did a super job in the early days in Iraq. The interviews and reports were well done – so well done that some prominent network anchors wondered aloud to their audiences in the embeds weren’t getting too close to their story to be “objective.” The translation of that concern was that the embeds were, God forbid, becoming too sympathetic to the soldiers with whom they shared hardship, sacrifice, and danger. Better, no doubt, to keep your distance so that you can maintain the coveted adversarial relationship…

To this…add the distrust-of-the-establishment bias of our era and the crusading fervor to find fault, even if the media representatives lack the expertise to sort out perceived fault from the real fault. Both kinds are reported daily, without any balancing account of our successes. Somehow, support for the man-bites-dog story can always be wrenched out of the raw material to the disadvantage of the military establishment – and to the detriment of the morale of the troops doing the hard work.

Supporting our troops is giving them credit for what they accomplish, as well as informing the public of what they have done poorly. Supporting our troops is reporting what they are accomplishing in the face of adversity, as well as holding them accountable for their mistakes.

Supporting our troops is not choosing headline words that hide the rare success story buried in the article, and it is not placing that article in the back of the sports section.

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