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Who's Responsible for Losing the Media War in Iraq?

 

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James Lacey

Proceedings
October 2004

Mr. Lacey is a Washington-based writer focusing on defense and international affairs issues. He was embedded with the 101st Airborne during the war in Iraq.

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Who's Responsible for Losing the Media War in Iraq?

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 of affairs.

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 before breakfast."

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 and Afghanistan 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.

First, a few words about the embed process. What a wonderful idea. Anytime you can get a journalist living in the sand and mud with real soldiers it is a major plus. It is impossible for anyone to be associated with U.S. soldiers in combat and not walk away impressed. As one CBS reporter told me, "I just had no idea our army was filled with such quality people." When journalists are sharing the fatigue, deprivations, and danger of the soldiers they are covering, a new respect develops, and it is not long before the Galloway effect (Joe Galloway, a renowned military correspondent, has never written a bad thing about soldiers since he left Vietnam) takes hold.

While the embed process can be improved, such as by ensuring the journalists are mobile and have access to electrical power, I have only one major suggestion for the future. Make sure thought is given to placing embeds at places and levels appropriate for their organizations. My experience will illustrate why this is important. I was embedded at brigade headquarters and saw everything the brigade commander saw. All the other Time and Newsweek embeds were at lower levels. Just after the sandstorm-enforced halt in the assault on Baghdad, Time sent me the copy for that week's cover story entitled "Why Are We Losing" and asked me to find comments to feed into the story.

That day I saw Colonel David Perkins of the 3rd Infantry Division and talked to many of his officers. Their reaction to the story was, "Tomorrow we laager up to refuel and rearm. The next day we move out to hit the Medina Division. It's beat up, facing the wrong way, and does not know we're coming. The day after that we ride onto Baghdad International Airport." After a few calculations, I figured out Time was going to declare the war lost on the same day we entered Baghdad. This was not good.

I sent a note to Time telling them they were about to look very foolish. Unfortunately, I was alone in my estimation of the situation. All of the talking heads on TV were shouting about disaster. However, expert talking-head opinions on the threat Saddam's paramilitaries were posing to the 3rd's supply line were not in line with the reality I was witnessing. Battlefield commanders in Iraq, rather then being alarmed at attacks on the supply lines, were thankful, "Isn't it nice of them to come out of hiding in the cities and attack across open desert to be slaughtered." In addition to the talking heads, most of my fellow embeds were echoing the disaster sentiment. When you are living in the dirt with an infantry platoon, it is easy to miss the progress that becomes visible when you get the big picture at a brigade headquarters or higher. After a six-hour meeting, the compromise at Time was to rename the story "What Will It Take to Win."

Newsweek went with the cover story "Quagmire" in big red letters, which allowed Time to claim a major journalistic coup by not looking as foolish as Newsweek.

The key point here is that it behooves the military to make sure the journalists with the most national impact are placed in locations where they will be able to get a full appreciation of events.

Each of these journalists should have been cultivated by the units they were with, as well as by the military as a whole. By giving them preferred access, the military would help many of their careers and bind them closer then ever. Some journalists, not given this kind of treatment, will scream that journalists covering the military this way will lose all objectivity. This is a facile argument and hardly worthy of comment. Why do the journalists who have the crime beat in New York City and hang out at One Police Plaza never get accused of being too cozy with the police force? How is it the White House Press Corps, which gets all kinds of privileged access and perks, is never accused of being too cozy with the President?

Neither should anyone in the military assume that just because journalists have been brought into the fold everything will be rosy. Joe Galloway has never said anything bad about the American soldier, but that has not stopped him from pointing his rhetorical weaponry at the Pentagon, the top brass, and the system whenever he has spotted a wrong or injustice. A journalist with a negative story is still going to publish. That is how he gets page one, promotions, and the praise of his peers. However, the military can expect to receive the benefit of the doubt more often than is now the case, and the journalists at least will know what they are talking about, making them more likely to get the story right.

The PAO process needs to be radically rebuilt. Critical to accomplishing this is reversing the passive mind-set of the PAO community such that it ceases being a filter for information and becomes actively engaged in making sure information gets out the door. There is no reason PAOs should be sitting back waiting for journalist inquiries or requests for interviews. Every day they should be out executing an aggressive media plan to get the military story in front of the public. This has to go beyond the sterility of a periodic press release or press briefing. It means spending every day trying to get important stories into the hands of journalists or facilitating stories already in the works.

To do this, military public affairs organizations need to employ some radical new business concepts.

Every businessperson knows that if you want to stay in business you have to anticipate customers' needs and supply them. PAOs have two customers-the organization they serve and the media who come to them for information. They are failing both. Ask your average PAO what information the command wants to get out next week or over the course of a year and the vast majority will give you a blank stare, or worse. Worse would include, "We want to make sure everyone knows what a magnificent job the soldiers in this organization are doing. On a daily basis they are accomplishing the mission under the most . . ." Thank you, but journalists have all the pabulum they need. PAOs need to get more knowledgeable about the specifics of what their organizations are doing and then be aggressive in getting that story out.

When it comes to getting closer to or understanding the media, the PAO community is failing miserably. Yes, there are some bright lights, but they are few and far between. Programs such as "Working with Industry" are a step in the right direction, but they are much too small to have any serious practical effect.

One step in the right direction would be to assign a captain/lieutenant to each of the major media organizations. I like to use the term "reverse embed," but that could be interpreted as having that officer reporting back to the Pentagon on what the media is doing. What I envision is not a spy, but an informed individual that members of a media group can turn to as a source. Someone who can explain that while a second lieutenant outranks a sergeant major, he gives him an order only at great peril. The manpower costs would be relatively insignificant (three networks, three major news magazines, three cable channels, and maybe a half dozen leading newspapers or syndicates). There is, of course, the chance the media organizations will be wary. This is easily overcome-offer it to only a few groups or on a first come, first served, basis and wait for the rest to clamor for their fair share.

Once in place, this individual could provide context for ongoing stories and facilitate journalist dealings with various commands (local PAOs). At the very least, it would not hurt to have a permanent goodwill ambassador inside organizations that often are viewed as hostile to all things military. It will take a long time before this officer is trusted by the editors, and many of those assigned this duty may feel entitled to combat pay. By its very nature, this will have to be a long-term effort, but I am sure it will not be too many years before the military-media attaché is being given space on the masthead of many media outlets.

A seemingly easy fix would be to give journalists a single point of contact at the higher level depending on what media they work for. For instance, a group of PAOs would be assigned to print magazines and another to news channels. Every journalist at Time or Fox News would know who to call for information. Long-term relationships would be built, and PAOs would gain a thorough understanding of the media with which they are working. Understandably, no PAO team would be able to answer every question that came in, but they would be able to point journalists in the right direction and facilitate contact with local PAOs who might have the information. A side benefit would be that they often would be able to give local PAOs a heads up. And if someone from the national media called a local PAO, that PAO would know who to alert about the inquiry. In an era when even what appears to be local trivia can have a strategic impact, this kind of intelligence would be critical in any attempt to get ahead of a story or at least to get the broad context of an event in journalists' hands.

In fact, failure to provide broader context to events is another major shortcoming of the PAO community. Recently, an article in The Washington Post screamed out about 91 cases of misconduct toward Iraqis being investigated by military authorities. U.S. soldiers and Marines were presented as marauding barbarians in tone if not in words. Some said this was an unfair portrait, but the article was correct in every factual detail. But what if there had been a PAO office somewhere that was responsible for putting this kind of information in context? Alerted by the captain/lieutenant assigned to the Post (who is passing information, not spying) or by the PAOs covering major newspapers, they would have gotten the gist of the article. Then they could have produced something like this:

• .05% of soldiers in Iraq were accused of any misconduct toward Iraqis in the past year.
• 15% of New York's Police Department is accused of some misconduct during the year.
• .003% of military patrols have resulted in investigation.
• .16% of NYPD patrols result in investigation.
• Remove the incidents committed by one terribly led unit of prison guards (800th Military Police), and the military's performance improves by more than 100%.
• In an environment at least 850 times as deadly as New York City, with a force of tens of thousands of teenagers who have no police training and who are working in communities where they do not even know the language, the U.S. military has done its policing job with 1/300th of the complaints that NYPD receives annually.
• On a per patrol basis, the military is 50 times less likely to receive a complaint than the NYPD.
• In the past year, New York City has lost one officer in the line of duty, or .002% of its force.
• Over the same period, the U.S. military in Iraq lost 842 or .7% of the in-country force (and 5,000 more wounded).

This kind of context could have been given to the article's author before the story ran or to others after the fact. While even one case of misconduct is a tragedy, the above context puts a new complexion on the problem. The military no longer is a bunch of barbarians pillaging the Iraqi countryside. It is now clear that while there has been some abuse, the vast majority of our men and women in Iraq are doing a great job under very dangerous conditions.

The military would also do well to look into funding various media operations. The reason most embeds came home as soon as major combat operations ended is that it was costing a fortune to keep them in Iraq. News organizations were losing millions covering the war, but they could not decrease their coverage in the face of brutal competition. However, as soon as it was safe to pull the plug, the accountants made them do it. Just when it became critical for the military to have embeds who could tell the full story in Iraq, they vanished. The military needs to come up with a way to foot the bill for extended media operations.

There are several arguments against this. First, the military does not owe the media a stipend to cover their commercial enterprise. Many would claim the military is doing enough by giving journalists access and providing security. That is all well and good, except that it is the military that has a strong vested interest in getting out the entire story. New organizations will get enough copy to cover the news cycle from just a small office in Baghdad. If the military wants journalists to go see what is happening in the rest of the country and how soldiers are coping as they perform their missions, then it has to be ready to pony up the money to finance it. Otherwise, it is useless to complain about the lack of perspective journalists have on events because all they do is sit in offices in Baghdad. Given a choice, the journalists would all be out with the troops because that is where the accolades and Pulitzer Prizes are to be found.

The second objection is that this would give the appearance of a state-controlled media. This might be a long-term problem, but I do not see the media giving in to state control of content anytime soon. However, if we must have a solution, creating an independently administered fund that media outlets could draw on as required would fit the bill. It might be messy as each group fought over its share, but I am confident it would not take long before accommodations were made and some equilibrium achieved.

The military also would be well served by sending some of its more fluent and entertaining PAOs on regular tours of journalism classes throughout the country, possibly even teaching classes at universities. Here is a real chance for the military to catch budding journalists on the ground floor and educate them about the functions and realities of the military. There already are some programs to send fellows to places such as the Shorenstein Center for Press and Public Policy, but once again the numbers are too few to make a significant impact.

In addition, the military needs to expand and formalize programs to get media representatives out to any and all kinds of training and daily events. A lot of this is being done at the local level, but it needs to be expanded to include the national press. This does not mean that marksmanship training will find its way onto national news, but it will begin to establish a new tone and familiarity between the elite press and the military. Once again, I advocate that the military pick up the bill for all of this.

Not all journalists will accept these offers, but some will. Those who do should be brought into the fold. Each media person who shows up for anything should be made an honorary member of the unit, given a unit coin, put on the unit newsletter distribution list, and invited to every social event. This holds doubly true if the visiting journalist writes a negative story. Remember to be nice to the young journalists. You never know which one is going to become a news anchor.

Finally, the military needs to develop programs to get more of its senior officers and civilian officials in front of the press on a regular basis. Too many see the press as their enemy or something to be feared. If the media are the enemy, then the military needs to wade into them as if storming ashore on D-Day. Officers who will run any personal risk in combat to ensure mission accomplishment must learn to be equally fearless when dealing with this new foe. Besides, once they wade in, they might find the enemy is not so bad after all.

Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright (c) 2004 U.S. Naval Institute/www.navalinstitute.org

Also available online at:
http://www.usni.org/proceedings/Articles04/PRO10lacey.htm

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