Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Media and the Military

Given the current focus on media-military relations in the wake of the Newsweek story and the Linda Foley comments, I asked a West Point classmate of mine if I could post his thoughts on the issue. As you can tell by the post, he is pretty thoughtful, has been a first-hand observer of the media-military relationship and is willing to fault the military where needed. Some of his comments were in response to previous posts on our class website, but it is not hard to follow.

Having dealt with the media extensively overseas, I'm more inclined to believe that the bias in the media coverage of any major event reflects the interests of the outlet's owners/editorial boards as opposed to strictly commercial interests. I do not think there would be any significant drop in circulation (with the corresponding drop in advertising revenue) if the majors reported coalition successes in addition to the daily terrorist attacks, but such a story line would not reflect the political views of the ownership and boards (and probably big advertisers as well).

My unscientific gut feeling is that the majority of Americans would welcome stories on the successes and that such stories would not negatively impact circulation. I know for a fact from having talked to numerous correspondents that success stories were often written, especially in the early days of the occupation, but were killed by the editorial boards for not being "relevant." Since no reporter wants to waste their time and everyone wants to get published, those stories aren't even written anymore (except by Army Times reporters).

I have to say I run into this even more now that I have returned to Washington and met with correspondents here. Without exception, they are aware of the successes, but have been told that there is "no interest" in these stories and that the focus will be on coalition failures.

The situation also reflects the post-Vietnam friction between the media and military - mutual suspicion and mistrust bordering on outright animosity. SAIS held a conference on this subject while I was there back in 1996 and it was extremely interesting to see the dynamic even then. I think this is the major reason why the Army has failed in its efforts to get the success stories written and published - the Army still despises the press and does a poor job of hiding it, and the media mistrusts the Army and therefore anything the Army gives it must, as a rule, be untrue.

It is unfortunately a Catch-22 that the Army should really devote some time and energy to stop. Look at the reporting on USMC operations and you will see that it can be done - the Army just needs to do better and accept the fact that the onus is on the Army to change this dynamic and it is in the Army's vital interest to do so.

I, for one, applaud the writer (he is referring here to a soldier who was sending commentary back to the US) for taking his laptop off safe and giving us a soldier's perspective from the ground. While certainly his impressions are limited by the microcosm that he is currently working in, they reflect the larger issue of what, exactly, is a "free" media and what its role is in time of war -is it a media that provides citizens all the news and information free from distortion, or is it a media that provides only selected information that is skewed and distorted to reflect the political views of the owners and boards, information that may indeed aid the terrorists? I would argue that the latter is as dangerous to our nation and democracy and as "unfree"as any possible "Rumsfeld NPR".