The Media And The Military

In time the reporters in the Gulf would have learned their craft and done their job, and some would have died doing so. But there wasn’t time.

Allen’s story was immediately photocopied and faxed and distributed among journalists, who frequently take a perverse pleasure in reading attacks on the fraternity, especially when they are well written. All the best reporters I know can quote from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop as if it were catechism: “Wenlock Jakes, highest paid journalist of the United States, scooped the world with an eye-witness story of the sinking of the Lusitania four hours before she was hit.”

Sometimes you can’t seem to be on the right side no matter where you are. John Balzar, of the Los Angeles Times , admitted, “I was a sergeant in Vietnam and now I am a journalist here. I feel like I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I am going to go home and have people throw rocks at me.” To demean the press for its poor showing in press briefings, however, is like demeaning the Union troops at Bull Run. The inexperienced men who ran from the field near the Manassas River were, four years later, part of the greatest and most powerful army the world had ever known. It is an unhappy rule of journalism that the bigger the story, the less expert is the general coverage, at least at first. This is true regardless of the subject matter. The number of reporters covering professional golf quintuples during the Masters Tournament. This is not because there are suddenly five times as many members of the press who know something about golf. It’s because the Masters is a big sports story and a pleasant one to cover in early April. Thirty years ago, when I was sent to Cape Canaveral to cover the start of America’s manned space program, I had so little scientific background I didn’t know how a doorbell works. For that matter, I’m still not certain. When the Gulf War exploded, the ranks of the press were suddenly swollen by correspondents who, in one veteran’s downright phrase, “don’t know a tank from a turd.”

In time the press would have shaken itself out. There would have been the laggards, because there are always those who prefer to cover combat from the confines of the saloon. In the Western command of the Union Army, they were known as “Cairo correspondents” because that was as close to the field as they ever got. And there would have been those who learned their craft and did their jobs, and doubtless some of them would have been killed doing so.

Mercifully there wasn’t time.

So now the media are on the defensive and deserve to be. Talking about how freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment is like hiding behind your mother’s skirt. It may be a warm and comfortable place to be, but it’s not much good in a fight. As Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, said, “A huge industry has grown up to shape public opinion by controlling what goes into the media in the last twenty years and in all that time, the press doesn’t seem to have thought about the problem at all. We tend to be a responsive apparatus that reacts to whatever comes along.”

When the siren went off in the Gulf, the American media were caught flat-footed. With few exceptions, military beats had been poorly covered for years. There was always room for a five-hundred-dollar hammer story but little about the people who were going to be responsible for any future military action. “We covered the politics of the military,” says Kovach, “but not its mission.” It is time to play some catchup ball, and a good place to start may be that the media should begin to take a somewhat less cosmic view of themselves. It is difficult enough to learn what American politics are and to report on how they are being carried out. It is asking a great deal for the media to act like emissaries from The Hague sitting in judgment.

No story as big as Desert Storm can stay bottled up forever. As brief as the action was, there were signs the steel-tight control over the media was loosening up. Reporters were starting to hook up with units on their own and filing good stories. Subsequent information on bombing runs took some of the high-tech gloss off the stunning television pictures that showed ordnance making its unerring way into doorframes and the like. After the cease-fire Air Force officers announced that only 7 percent of the 88,500 tons dropped on Iraq and Kuwait were so-called smart bombs. The rest were ordinary unguided bombs, most of which missed their targets. The military shrewdly played this kind of information tight to the vest, knowing the clatter of a victory parade drowns out the complainers.