24 June 2010

The media is not the enemy.

It's unfortunate that the long-term ramifications of Gen. McChrystal's sacking may likely lead to reduced access to the military by the press.  In a blog entry at the US Naval Institute, Commander Salamander chastizes the vanity of senior military leaders by agreeing to interviews with outlets like Rolling Stone and Esquire, noting:
Reporters are not your fans. They are not your friends. They have a paycheck to earn. They have their own desire to see their names in front of millions of people. They don’t care about your goals, your plans, your Commander’s Intent. They care about getting a story.
All this is well known. Why then in the last three years have we seen Admiral Fallon, Admiral Mullen, and now General McChrystal fall into the media vanity trap? Simple. They forgot their place.
Vanity, definitely someone's favorite sin.

While there's a degree of truth in this post at USNI, I think that Commander Salamander is being a bit too harsh on journalists.  I'm not the only one who thinks so, either.  Embedded journalism benefits the military, as it gets our story out, just as it also benefits the the public, for it makes the military more accountable to the American people.

Until recently, the US military has been very risk-averse when it comes to media engagement, largely due to a few isolated incidents and some pervasive misconceptions which arose in the last forty years or so.  In a popular--but grossly oversimplified--narrative of the Vietnam War, the US military was winning the Vietnam War until the Tet Offensive of 1968, where televised images of war sapped America's desire to remain in Southeast Asia.  More recently, CNN was accused of setting up lights on the shores of Somalia as US Marines waded ashore, jeopardizing the safety of the mission.  There was also an infamous segment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera sketched a map of the 101st Airborne Division's battle plan in the sand, resulting in his eviction from Iraq.

Yet, contrary to popular opinion, not all journalists like to prey on misspoken words, nor do all journalists have an anti-military agenda.  In fact, a few journalists who regularly cover the military have offered some words of advice to military leaders, as well as journalists.

Jamie McIntre, Line of Departure:

Michael Hastings, the former Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, says he has no idea why McChrystal was so generous with sharing his innermost doubts, and invited him along to witness the irreverent and sometimes contemptuous attitude of his top aides.
Hastings speculated to ABC, among others that it might simply be a character flaw, “a sort of natural kind of recklessness.”
I have another theory based on my 16 years of traveling with senior defense officials and military officers.  Gen. McChrystal might have been under the misimpression Hastings would protect him, in return for the great access and candor.
The dirty little secret among beat reporters who routinely travel with top military officials is that there’s a unwritten code, a general understanding, that off-color jokes, irreverent banter, and casual conversations are generally off-the-record, or on the deepest of background, unless otherwise agreed upon.
Usually this is an informal understanding, especially when a group of reporters is traveling with an official, but sometimes it’s part of official ground rules, like for instance on the Defense Secretary’s official plane.  All conversations are off-the-record, and if you want something on the record, you have to ask, and get permission.  This is to allow the Secretary, and his top lieutenants to let their hair down and relax. It also gives the reporters a chance to get to know the officials and have unguarded conversations with them, information that can be very useful in providing context down the road. It makes the plane a welcome sanctuary at the end of what is often a grueling day.  The plane policy began as an informal understanding, until one reporter blogged a first-person account of what it’s like traveling on the plane, and mentioned that the flight surgeon handed out sleeping pills to anyone who felt they needed them.  This angered then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and the result was a formal policy.
In another article, McIntyre discusses the relationship between the military and the media.
[I]n many ways we in the media ARE the enemy, or at least adversaries of those in government or the military who would seek to put the best face on failing policies.   That’s our job.
Which brings me to all the handwringing about the revelations that some in the military were doing “opposition research” on reporters, trying to determine if they were hostile, friendly, or neutral when it comes to covering ongoing military operations.  
To which I say, “Bring it on.”
I’m a big believer in accountability.  That is to say, a reporter files a story, and afterward, often very soon afterward, it becomes clear how accurate and incisive the reporting is.    If there were a penalty for being demonstrably wrong, there would be a lot fewer demonstrably bad reports.   I always welcomed any review of my reporting. In fact, when I look back at it myself, I’m often amazed at how my stories hold up, since the first account of any event is often incomplete, and subject to inadvertent inaccuracies.
So if a reporter wants to embed with U.S. troops, or interview a top commander, why wouldn’t the staff want to get feel for the reporter’s reputation for integrity, fairness, and accuracy?
Now if you start granting access based on which reporters write positive stories, well, that’s a big problem.   It undermines everyone’s credibility.  (The Pentagon insists, by the way, that is NOT the case, that no reporter has been denied access because of negative ratings by the Rendon group, or anyone else.) In fact, if the Pentagon wanted to smear a reporter, the most damaging thing it could do is rate them as “friendly”.  That’s the kiss of death on the defense beat.  As soon as your editors think you’re gone native you are outta there.
The fact is when you engage with the media, there is always a risk the story won’t meet your expectations.   And that’s where good public affairs can help.   It comes down to building credibility and having a success story to tell.  And PAOs admit if a reporter gets a reputation of being unfair, or sloppy, or pursuing an agenda, it’s hard to get senior officials to talk to them.
In my 16 years of covering the Pentagon I found that most commanders aren’t expecting laudatory puff pieces, they just want a fair shake.  And most know that success breeds good coverage, not the other way around.  As I told one general who once was lamenting the negative stories about the Iraq war, “If want better coverage, conduct a better war.”

And on "off-the-record" comments:
"Just to be clear and so there is no misunderstanding," I would proclaim in a somber voice, "when we say off the record, we mean not for reporting in any form, (pause for effect).. unless it's REALLY, REALLY good."
Tom Ricks also weighs in with a few helpful hints for commanders encountering the media:

1. Know who you are talking to. Reporters have track records. A good public affairs officer will know that record and provide you with articles with highlighted quotes. 
2. Establish ground rules. If you have an embedded reporter, you need to say something like, anything you hear inside my tent is off the record until you check it with us. This goes triple for any event involving alcohol.
3. Reporters doing one-off profiles for magazines such asRolling Stone and Esquire have less invested in a continuing relationship than do beat reporters covering the war for newspapers and newsmagazines. That doesn't mean you should avoid one-off reporters, but it does mean that they have no incentive to establish and maintain a relationship of trust over weeks and months of articles.

Lt. Col. Paul Yingling also shared his thoughts about Gen. McChrystal's "cowboy talk" with Small Wars Journal and Wired.com's Danger Room.

Commanders who indulge in sloppy, tough guy, cowboy lingo – “smackdown, scumbags,” etc. tend to run sloppy, tough guy, cowboy operations. Units, and especially staffs, tend to adopt the language and demeanor of their commander.
Commanders of large formations can’t possibly police every comment by every soldier and staff officer. However, as General Petraeus often says, it’s important for senior leaders to set the right tone.
Insular backgrounds, whether in special operations or conventional forces, encourage tone-deafness. Applause lines in the testosterone driven subculture of combat units are not likely to play well on CNN. Senior commanders have to move easily between these two worlds, delivering a consistent message to very different audiences.
When I encourage young officers to go to grad school, I tell them to stay away from military people. Have lunch with the lesbian anarchists, attend the environmentalists’ weekly emergency teach-ins, and try to see the world through different eyes. That skill will come in handy later on in life.

So there you have it.  Certainly, the press is not the enemy, nor are they instruments to be manipulated.  Are there any service members or journalists out there with some more helpful hints?


Andy Kravetz said...

thanks for backing me up, Buddy. I'll post a link to my blog post a month or so back. The open letter to the Pentagon. :)


Hale101 said...

" Are there any service members or journalists out there with some more helpful hints?"
Yeah, stay at home with your pens, pencils, and opinions and let us do our jobs. War isn't pretty, fun, or enjoyable. If you want the experience, sign a contract, put on a uniform, and come join us. We will see how your opinions change when that happens. It is easy to come out here write about something for a few months, go home to your family, and watch MORE stories on what YOU deem necessary to report. BUT that is probably why WE signed the CONTRACT and YOU WRITE articles. WE have the INTESTINAL FORTITUDE to do what it takes to get the job done while YOU hide behind your pen and paper at home. You want a hint on how to obtain a better story? ENLIST OR COMMISSION and get your own stories firsthand.

hale101 said...

those are my hints to civilian reporters. this whole McChrystal debacle is ridiculous. i will not defend him b/c he knows he was wrong and so do we. we are all beginning to hate reporters regardless of their intentions. they seem to constantly report on everything negative. McChrystal may have said certain things and probably shouldn't have done so publicly. what we have failed to take a look at is what he has done well for the past 7 years. i screw up erases 10 "atta' boys". this civilian reporter ranks right up there with the Geraldo's. looks like McChrystal didn't "protect his flank" as others did prior to him.

jj sutherland said...

As a journalist who has been embedded numerous times, traveled with Generals and Secretaries and all that stuff, my one piece of advice to both journalists and military officers is simple. Know what the rules are. State them out loud. Be very, very clear. I make sure I do that every single time.

Rex Brynen said...

Not shooting your mouth off about the boss, allies, and mission-critical coworkers in front of unknowns is not only basic Media Skills 100, but it is also Basic Diplomacy 100, and even Basic Leadership 100. I think its regrettable that McChrystal went down in flames this way. However it was a basic and rather fundamental mistake.

In a military conflict where a sense of unity of purpose relates directly to the ability to project determination and winning momentum, off-message comments like these do real damage. It would be naive to assume that this is the first time that these things have been said by him and his staff--rather, it is the first time that a reporter reported them. This doesn't mean that others--notably allies and Afghans--hadn't heard them before, and quietly taken note of the apparent dissension in US ranks.