for Losing the Media War in Iraq?
By James Lacey, U.S. Navy Proceedings, October 2004
The military laments that its successes in Iraq and Afghanistan
have gone unnoticed, while any bad news is immediately set on by a national
media intent on painting every U.S. commitment as a quagmire. This might
be true, but the military is not without responsibility for this state
Military-media relations have improved since General William Sherman
announced, “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their
camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which,
in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell
Almost a century and a half later, no serving flag or general officers
are on record advocating the extermination of journalists. Still, despite
the success of the embed process and the tens of millions of dollars
spent on public affairs infrastructure, relations continue to be strained.
Military officers constantly lament that most of the successes in Iraq
went unnoticed, while every little setback or problem seemingly received
national attention. Many believe national policy is set by the media
intent on painting every U.S. military commitment as an unwinnable quagmire.
They are right.
But who is responsible for this state of affairs? While it is easy
to blame the media for failing to get the true story or to accuse journalists
of a liberal bias against military operations, this fails to identify
the true culprit. The reason the military is losing the war in the media
is because it has almost totally failed to engage, and where it has
engaged, it has been with a mind-boggling degree of ineptitude. It is
a strange circumstance indeed when virtually every senior officer agrees
that the media can make or break national policy, but no more than a
handful can name the top military journalist for The Washington Post,
The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Thousands of officers
who spend countless hours learning every facet of their profession do
not spend one iota of their time understanding or learning to engage
with a strategic force that can make or break their best efforts.
The military is paying a high and continuing price for its inability
to engage the media. There have been 30 years of studies, conferences,
and meetings since Vietnam dealing with just this topic, and still the
magic formula eludes the military. As the only embedded journalist in
Iraq who still was carrying a military ID card (Army Reserve), I feel
uniquely placed to comment on the military-media relationship. I served
on active duty for more than a dozen years and came to journalism late.
However, my stint in journalism focused on military affairs, which allowed
me to develop a clear picture of the frustrations most journalists encounter
when dealing with the military. Many readers will counter: But what
about the frustrations of the military with the media? Who cares? That
is like blaming enemy action for the failure of a brilliant plan. The
media will always get a story out; it is the military’s responsibility
to make sure that story is informed and correct. It is useless for officers
to scream in frustration that the media got a story wrong, particularly
if they did nothing to help journalists get it right.
As a journalist, when given an assignment, I will not fail. To a journalist,
an assignment is the same as a mission order. If the people in the know
will not tell me, I will go to their soldiers. If that does not work,
I will go to the families of the soldiers and get the versions of the
story their sons and daughters have sent them by e-mail. Then I will
write the story based on what I was able to get from whatever source
was available. All the after-the-fact howling in the world from those
who think I got the story all wrong will have no effect. Even if I wanted
to go back and fix it, I probably would not bother. The news cycle has
moved on, and I have moved on with it.
Anyone who thinks a journalist is ethically bound to go back and fix
wrong information or impressions is fooling himself. Even current military
stories are competing for space against J-Lo’s latest wedding. Editors
are not giving up space to rehash the past—historical record be damned.
Besides, too many corrections will begin to make it look like I could
not get the right story in the first place, and what compelling reason
is there to make myself look incompetent?
Even with knowledge of how the military works, I still found virtually
my every attempt to get information from public affairs officers (PAOs)
to be akin to getting water from a stone. Many times I sat looking at
the phone in disbelief at some answer or non-answer a PAO had given
me. Too often, I hung up the phone and thought to myself, if the Secretary
of Defense only knew how one of his PAOs was treating a man about to
write a column for national distribution. Sometimes, I had to sit back
and count off the reasons I should not just start writing mean little
articles about the military.
After major combat operations ended, Time magazine took me home. My
final article on the war and the military was called “The Men Who Won
the War.” This one article alone should have marked me as a journalist
worth being nice to. So, when I called the PAOs at the Coalition Provisional
Authority (CPA) to work out some access for my return to Iraq, I was
stupefied by the response. My offer, which was given to half a dozen
civilian and military public affairs folks over the course of 20 or
30 calls was pretty extraordinary. At a time when everyone in Iraq was
screaming that the media were failing to cover the military’s accomplishments,
I said I wanted to tell the country what was going right.
If given the right access, I told them, I probably could get the cover
of a major newsweekly several times over the course of a couple of months.
In addition, I had several national opinion magazines lined up that
would publish all I could send them. I also was in conversations with
producers of a network TV news magazine, and they were interested in
doing a piece along the same positive lines. Finally, I reminded these
public affairs people that Time and CNN were owned by the same company
and that I probably would be able to get substantial air time during
what I expected to be an extended stay in Iraq.
I was coming to Iraq to look for the news the rest of the media were
missing. In short, I had an agenda that correlated exactly with the
military’s and the CPA’s, but no one wanted to be bothered. Excuses
about it being a hectic period should fall on deaf ears. At one point,
I asked for access to Paul Bremer, civil administrator for Iraq, and
was told I would have to get in line behind 250 other requests for the
same thing. I reminded that PAO what I was bringing to the table and
that it was ludicrous I should be placed in line behind a request from
the Podunk Gazette. He hung up on me.
Giving up, I asked the 101st Airborne if I could re-embed with them
and report on what they were doing. Within an hour of my e-mail request,
I had a note from the commanding general telling me to hurry back. He
said he had a lot of good news and it had to get out. An hour after
his e-mail arrived, the 101st PAO office was on the phone telling me
what flight I would be on going back to Iraq. Here was an organization
that knew how to treat friendly journalists. It also helped that they
have the best PAO of my acquaintance.
I could spout off more about the indignities, incompetence, and rudeness
I have been subjected to by PAOs, but the high ground in this discussion
is not going to be held by whining. It will be won and held with constructive
solutions, and as luck would have it, I have some.