The Media And The Military

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Make no mistake about it, the military has become extremely sophisticated in the way it handles public relations. Death by friendly fire is one of the most horrible things that can happen in combat. For troops to die in the face of enemy action is one thing. To have them killed by their own gunfire is grotesque. But it has happened ever since armies first started throwing iron into the sky. The service used to go to extraordinary lengths to cover up such stories, but when it happened in the Gulf, high-level officers came forward almost immediately and acknowledged the mistake. The incident showed how well the services had mastered the dictum that it is better to break bad news yourself than to have it broken for you. It also displayed an extraordinary confidence in the public’s capacity to accept that kind of loss. It is unfortunate the military’s confidence in the public did not extend further.

In controlling the words and pictures that came out of the Gulf, the military had an unbeatable hole card that it played to the hilt and somewhat beyond—the argument that the lives of the troops must not be endangered by the unwarranted disclosure of information. Fair enough. But demonstrably, much that was done in the name of security was simply an attempt to help sell the war to the home audience. Field interviews with the troops were closely monitored by officers, pictures showing soldiers in distress were suppressed, and television coverage of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base was banned altogether. The military did not allow the media a view of the conflict as much as it gave them the bum’s rush through the desert.

The public, watching on television, loved it. And why not? The media had been begging for it. Since Vietnam the military has been a favored whipping boy of the media; brass hats go on brass heads, men and matériel are just boys with their toys, and the Pentagon doesn’t know how to buy a toilet seat. The military has routinely been subjected to the kind of comic abuse you would expect to find in the sports section. A couple of stories from the Washington Post will illustrate. When the top general in the Air Force, Michael Dugan, was fired for making a politically awkward statement, a reporter named Richard Cohen dismissed the general as a “talkative flyboy airhead.” Later, another reporter, Joel Achenbach, late of Princeton and apparently nowhere else, made the discovery that military leaders today are influenced by the writings of Karl von Clausewitz. Achenbach wrote a funny piece about what a hoot it was that military officers go to places such as the Command and General Staff College to read up on Clausewitz, who died before the day of the rifled gun barrel. Would Achenbach have written a similarly comic story had he discovered that economists were still influenced by Adam Smith, who, after all, is nothing more than a dead Scot who never had a credit card?

The press is free to write what it wishes. But it should not be surprised if it finds that its subjects resent being patronized. Nor should it be surprised if the military, whose business is the management of violence, strikes back. In Vietnam the daily press conference in Saigon was called “the five o’clock follies,” and the briefing officers were frequently given a rough going-over by the press. In a picture-perfect demonstration of how those who bear the sword may also perish by it, the military turned the tables on the press in the Gulf briefings. Watching the media in action is never pretty, but looking in on a press conference is the worst possible view. There are too many people asking too many questions from too many angles for the sessions to be coherent. I have been told the military was so certain the press would act badly at the briefings that it was written into the public affairs scenario that televised press conferences would show the American public how important it was to muzzle the media. It is certain that the press played into the military’s waiting hands. “Saturday Night Live” took time off from its traditional political targets to do a devastating parody of the sessions, with the reporters cast as buffoons. The satire was nothing, however, to the scorn heaped on the press by its own fellows. Peter Braestrup, who covered Vietnam for The New York Times and Washington Post and is now director of communications at the Library of Congress, was withering in his commentary on the press in the Gulf: “They’re ahistorical: they can’t remember any precedents for anything. They keep discovering the world anew. They either concentrate on high-tech stories or on what an ABC producer described to me as ‘boo-hoo journalism,’ that is, asking How do you feel? not What do you know? They’re looking for that little emotional spurt. They don’t know what the wider vignette means. They’re yuppies in the desert.”

 

Writing in the Washington Post , Henry Alien raised press bashing to a level rarely heard since Sherman: “The Persian Gulf press briefings are making reporters look like fools, nitpickers and egomaniacs; like dilettantes who have spent exactly none of their lives on the end of a gun or even a shovel; dinner party commandos, slouching inquisitors, collegiate spitball artists; people who have never been in a fistfight much less combat; a whining, self-righteous, upper-middleclass mob jostling for whatever tiny flakes of fame may settle on their shoulders like some sort of Pulitzer Prize dandruff.”