- Historic Sites
The Media And The Military
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
After more than 130 years, the fundamental dispute between the American media and the American military has changed hardly at all. The essential argument is still about access. How much should the press be allowed to know and see of the conduct of battle? Access was the question posed by the eighteen hundred media personnel accredited to cover Operation Desert Storm in Iraq earlier this year when fewer than three hundred were permitted onto the field in press pools so carefully escorted and monitored that one correspondent likened them to “excursion tours for senior citizens.”
It’s been a long, acrimonious road from Bull Run to Basra. Sometimes the press has the upper hand; sometimes the generals do. But the basic argument never changes.
Access was all Florus Plympton of the Cincinnati Commercial wanted in September 1861 when he arrived at Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s command in Kentucky with a sheaf of letters of introduction from Sherman’s military superiors and a request for an interview. Sherman, who hated the press with a devouring flame, ordered the newsman to take the next train back to Louisville. When Plympton protested that he had come only to learn the truth, Sherman flew into a fine rage.
“We don’t want the truth told about things here,” Sherman exploded. ”… We don’t want the enemy any better informed than he is.”
With varying degrees of acrimony, that conversation has been going on ever since.
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the victor in the Persian Gulf, claims an affection for the writings of Sherman, and several times during the Gulf War he quoted the old general more aptly and accurately than many military historians have. More important, Schwarzkopf and his forces paid honor to Sherman’s memory not only by conducting a flanking action reminiscent of Sherman at his best but by accomplishing something Sherman never did. Thanks to careful planning and meticulous execution, as well as the kind of good luck that goes with such planning and execution, they managed to control the press to a degree not seen in our history. With few meaningful exceptions, the words and the pictures were entirely those approved by the military command.
If the media were as well disciplined and given to conducting extensive critiques of their performance as the military is, there would be a large group of high-level news personnel huddled around a sand table at the Columbia Journalism School right now, rerunning the exercise and trying to discover what went wrong. It is important to find out, for while an unfettered press may sometimes be nettlesome, a tame, obedient press is always dangerous. If ever there was an object lesson in this, it was demonstrated by Saddam Hussein, who, immediately after the cease-fire, threw foreign journalists out of Iraq so he could go back to slaughtering his own people without letting them read about it in the papers.
It is not in their natures for the military and the media to be entirely comfortable with each other. The disciplines are too disparate. The military requires subservience of the individual to the needs of the group, while the media prize independent initiative above all else. The same elements that make a good reporter would likely make for a poor field commander. At their best the media and the military work together in roughhewn harmony, providing sound military leadership and an independent source of information that helps the public (which provides the troops and pays the bills) to know what it’s getting for its expenditure of blood and money. At their worst the military wraps itself in the flag and the media wrap themselves in the First Amendment and neither party listens to the other.
It is unfortunate that the two sides of the issue were first so spectacularly joined by Sherman and the press. This inaugural confrontation shows neither side at its most admirable. No American military leader in our history has ever been as malevolently and unfairly vilified in the newspapers as Sherman was by the Northern press. They said he was insane in 1861, and the suspicion of madness clung to him for the rest of the war. They said he was a coward for refusing to commit his troops to frontal assaults, and when he did try a bloody charge up Kennesaw Mountain, they accused him of wasting his men for personal glory. After the assassination of President Lincoln they said he was trying to become the man on horseback eager to seize control of the government. They charged him with treason and treachery, and one newspaper ran a story saying Sherman had been secretly paid off in Confederate gold to let Jefferson Davis escape to Mexico. Even taking into account the rough-andtumble mores of the press at the time, the charges were scurrilous.