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.”
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.
Reason enough for Sherman to hate the press, but his detestation of the media went deeper than hurt feelings over personal attacks. In 1855, when he was a partner in a San Francisco bank, Sherman had gone to the local newspapers to ask them to stop printing inflammatory articles on the wobbly economics of Northern California and was coldly refused. That the press would risk possible financial panic to pursue some quixotic search for truth struck Sherman as irresponsible. Also, the very development of the popular press in the nineteenth century was part of a democratic tide that terrified the general, who admitted to being something very close to a monarchist. He saw the rise of landless mechanics, freed blacks, and the penny press, with its ideas that one man’s vote was as good as anyone else’s, as an invitation to civic chaos. He couldn’t do much about the mechanics because they were shouldering weapons in his army, and he held off the blacks at more than arm’s length by trying to restrict their participation in the Western theater to work in labor battalions. He could get at the press, however, and he attacked it vigorously, describing correspondents as a “set of dirty newspaper scribblers who have the impudence of Satan.” He routinely banished reporters from his command, had several of them arrested, and stood ready to order up the firing squad when he could get one of them in his sights.
In truth, the press did not draw from the elevated levels of society. Henry Adams said he went into journalism as “the last resource of the educated poor who could not be artists and would not be tutors. Any man who was fit for nothing else could write an editorial or a criticism.” It should be remembered, however, that as the troops, freshly levied from farm and factory, had to learn how to be soldiers, so a large body of newspaper reporters had to learn how to cover a war.
American newspapers had eagerly reported the progress of the Mexican War fifteen years earlier. This was the first conflict to field war correspondents, but news they gathered took so long to get from the distant desert armies that it could scarcely offer any help to Santa Anna by the time it reached the headlines. Most of the Civil War, on the other hand, would be fought out close to a telegraph key. And it was a civil war: to an extent, the more serious lapses of the men who covered it had to reflect the uncertainties and terrible cross-purposes of the time.
There were some grave breaches of security. Sherman was forced to fight a battle he had hoped to avoid at Goldsboro when the Confederate general William Hardee read in the New York Tribune that that was where the Yankees were heading. “It’s impossible,” Sherman told his staff, “to carry on a war with a free press.” Surprisingly, some of the press agreed with him. Henry Villard, a distinguished correspondent and editor, allowed that “if I were a commanding general, I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.”
It was pointed out at the time that Sherman may have also hated the press because he was “too much like them to love them.” Sherman wrote supremely well and could have been a media star earning considerably more than his general’s pay had he switched professions. Worse even than being a mere newspaper scribbler, Sherman was a natural-born publicity peddler. When he telegraphed Washington in September 1864, “Atlanta is ours, and fairly won,” he showed he knew something of how to fashion a headline, and four months later, when he wired President Lincoln offering him the city of Savannah as a Christmas present, he delivered a masterstroke in public relations.
In an irony of history, Sherman, who was so pilloried in the press, may have also been a chief beneficiary. When he was girding up for his march, newspaper stories about a lunatic Union general coming South with a torch to set fire to the Confederacy struck precisely the note that the general wished to be sounded. Southerners, he said, “entertained an undue fear of our western men, and, like children, they had invented such ghost-like stories of our own prowess in Georgia they were scared by their own inventions.”
Freedom of the press as guaranteed by the Constitution is a particularly American concept. While the American press is not impervious to control or attack, it is afforded legal protections not available elsewhere. During World War I, Winston Churchill seriously suggested that The Times of London be commandeered and turned into an official government publication, to be used as “a sure and authoritative means of guiding public opinion.”
By this time the press had become an unpleasant fact of life for the military. If correspondents could not be kept off the field, however, it was essential they be controlled. The British press and army censors acted in concert to keep the horrors of trench warfare out of news accounts. Late in December 1917 Prime Minister David Lloyd George confided to the editor of the Manchester Guardian : “If the people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and can’t know.”
As before, American correspondents, who arrived overseas after posting ten-thousand-dollar bonds to ensure their deportment, had to concern themselves with access. The United Press’s Westbrook Pegler, twenty-three years old and the youngest accredited reporter in France, tried to get an interview with the American commander, Gen. John J. Pershing. The interview consisted in its entirety of Pershing’s saying, “Pegler, get the hell out of my office.”
There was much news to sit on during the war, and the military fell into the practice of restricting information on the basis of the security of the troops when the question was really about the comfort of the commanders. Pegler tried to break a story about the number of American soldiers dying of pneumonia because of inadequate supplies of heat and clothing. Pershing wrote the United Press saying Regler was too young to understand the uses of war and asking that he be replaced. He was.
Correspondents were expected not simply to report the war but to be part of the public relations team supporting its execution. Frederick Palmer, a veteran war reporter for three American news agencies, later said he was “cast for the part of a public liar to keep up the spirits of the armies and the peoples of our side.” In an interesting parallel to Peter Arnett’s reportage from Baghdad for CNN, Palmer, for a time, went to Berlin and reported from there. Since just about everyone has made some kind of remark concerning the propriety of Arnett’s telecasting from the enemy capital, I might as well throw in mine. Arnett was doing what every good reporter tries to do. He got as close to the story as he could and reported it as well as he could under trying conditions. I cannot imagine there was a American war correspondent in Europe during World War II who would not have reported from Berlin if he could have gotten there.
Palmer later turned down a forty-thousand-dollar-a-year job as a war correspondent to become chief censor for the American forces for a major’s pay of twenty-four hundred dollars. He’d had more combat exposure than any officer in the American Expeditionary Forces, having covered a number of conflicts, including the Greek-Turkish War, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and the American incursion into Mexico. But trying to organize and discipline the unruly American press corps, he found, “was worse than war.”
The press did not become noticeably warmer to the military in the months and years after the 1918 armistice, but the immense unifying shock of Pearl Harbor changed that along with everything else. America had never entered a war with such a sense of common purpose. The years between 1941 and 1945 represented the high-water mark of cooperation between the military and the media, and the two worked together as closely as they ever were likely to do. It started at the top. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, one of the most close-mouthed men in American military history, routinely briefed top members of the Washington press corps, giving them the latest war information with the bark on it. The sessions were for background only, but the reporters gained valuable insight into the conduct of the war. Ten days before the invasion of Sicily, Gen. Dwight Elsenhower filled in some thirty American reporters on the assault planning down to identifying the specific divisions scheduled to hit the beaches. The press justified the confidence. There were no security breaches at any of these top-secret conferences, and as the invasion progressed, the field reporters in Sicily agreed, at Elsenhower’s personal request, to sit on the most colorful story of the campaign: the famous slapping incident when Gen. George Patton struck a soldier said to be suffering from shell shock. The story was later broken in Washington by Drew Pearson, a popular political gossip columnist, who was not privy to the agreement made in Sicily.
The same spirit held through the Korean War. Members of the press were briefed several days ahead of the spectacular surprise amphibious landing at Inchon.
Like a great many things in American life, cooperation between the military and the media began to unravel in Vietnam. Here, as in the Civil War a century earlier, America found itself deeply and violently divided about its national purpose. The correspondent John Chancellor put succinctly the lesson of those years: “Relations between the press and the American military deteriorated when the United States began to engage in undeclared wars of uncertain popularity.” Of all the myths of our times, none is more pervasive than the one deeply held within some levels of the military that “the press lost Vietnam.” This is simple nonsense. Even though military censorship did not officially exist in Vietnam (in an undeclared war, there was no legal basis for it), there is no record of any operation compromised as a result of press coverage. Out of more than two thousand sets of press credentials issued during Vietnam, six were revoked for damage to military security.
The most famous revocation came in 1968, when John S. Carroll, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun , wrote that the Marines were abandoning Khe Sanh near the Laotian and North Vietnamese borders. The Khe Sanh facility had been a dubious military property for some time. Stuck on the outer fringes of Vietnam, it had been under periodic siege, and President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers in Washington became convinced the North Vietnamese wanted to turn Khe Sanh into another Dien Bien Phu, the citadel of French colonial power that fell to North Vietnamese attack in 1954. Under pressure from Washington, the commanding general, William C. Westmoreland, called for massive air and artillery bombardment throughout January and February to lift the siege. Four months after staging a major action in defense of Khe Sanh, the command decided to pull out. Carroll, who had covered the strikes in January, returned in June to see the metal runway being scrapped, the bunkers blown up, and the facilities bulldozed. For reporting what every Vietcong within ten miles could see and hear for himself, Carroll lost his accreditation for six weeks. Political embarrassment at home was beginning to count for as much as military concerns in the field.
A sorry estrangement developed between the top military and civilian levels in Vietnam and the media. As a rule of thumb reporters like to go to the highest-ranking official they can find who has good information. But correspondents were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the rosy predictions being given out at the top and worked their way down the command level to junior combat officers who had a bleaker view. In effect, many correspondents became rogue reporters working a different side of the story from the official one. When Joseph Alsop, the pundit’s pundit, arrived in Saigon in 1969 and grandly declared that he never talked to anyone under the rank of colonel, he became an object of derision. “We had gotten to the point,” remembers Kevin Buckley, Newsweek ’s bureau chief in Vietnam, “that we hardly talked to anyone above the rank of colonel.”
By the time of the Grenada invasion in 1983, the question of media access to combat operations had changed dramatically. There was none. The Washington columnist Haynes Johnson wrote that it was the first military strike in American history “produced, filmed and reported by the Pentagon.”
Eight years later, in January 1990, one of the biggest stories out of the Panama invasion was one that raised the question whether Capt. Linda Bray, who went in with a group of military police in an attack on a dog kennel that killed twenty-one German shepherds, had actually been in- volved in combat. The press had been reduced to filing light features about an operation they were largely prevented from seeing in the first place. One group of 16 reporters and photographers arrived from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and were held for thirty-six hours—the basic battle had lasted six—only to be told by a major general, “My operational orders are that I cannot let you talk with any of my men.” Sometime later 169 journalists and twenty-five thousand pounds of electronic gear flew into Howard Air Force Base and were immediately locked up in a recreation room and refused access even to a telephone. No one was allowed to walk outside, and most were eventually flown back without having left the area.
The Panama operation suffered generally light casualties, 23 military killed and 3 U.S. civilians. But it was not error free. An airborne unit of 850 Rangers dropped into Rio Hato under difficult circumstances when jump levels were lowered from 500 to 375 feet. An Army briefing officer assured the press no casualties had been caused by such a low jump. In fact, in addition to 4 troopers who had been shot dead, another 253 were hurt, including 86 cases of what doctors later called “orthopedic nightmares” mostly caused by Rangers’ forgetting to unhook their hundred-pound chest packs and falling hard onto the ground.
The war in the Persian Gulf was the media’s Cannae, and the press played Varro to Schwarzkopf’s Hannibal: the military’s victory over the press was total and devastating. The media were essentially reduced to being a conduit for official information offered by commanders who could scarcely disguise their scorn for the delivery system they were forced to use. It is a truism of war that to create a victory as massive as Cannae, it takes two generals, a smart one on one side and a stupid one on the other. In the almost twenty years since Vietnam the military has been working on its media problem while the press has been sitting on its First Amendment rights.
The new system is right out of a Madison Avenue manual for a publicity blitz. If you want pictures, you will get more than you can possibly use, but they will be our pictures. If you want quotes, you will get them by the hour, but they will be our quotes. If you want access, you will be personally escorted to the front, but we will determine where and when you get there.
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.”
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.
Soon after the American troops started to move toward the desert, media attention began to focus on the arresting personality of “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf. An indication of how poorly the media have been covering the military beat for the last twenty years is the scant information the public had on Schwarzkopf when he took command. In a perceptive article in the Washington Monthly , Scott Shuger pointed out that the press, which was so interested in getting a line on the judicial thinking of the Supreme Court nominee David Souter that it dug up his college thesis, didn’t know anything about the military philosophy of any of the top brass and seemed not to care. This situation is changing now that the media are interested in generals again, and General Schwarzkopf, riding a tidal wave of popularity, may learn to miss the days when he led a life of relative obscurity. The dust had hardly settled in the desert when negative stories about the general began to circulate. He is an attention grabber who thinks he planned Desert Storm all by himself. He is loath to give credit to his field commanders and quick to relieve any staff officer who disagrees with him. A joke going around the planning staff in Riyadh a few weeks back ran:
“Who is the second most hated man in the Middle East?”
None of this is necessarily a mark against Schwarzkopf. It is the inevitable backlash that goes with prominence. Certainly, when compared with the kinds of stories that were circulated about Sherman and Grant, these are small potatoes. Politicians understand such things. Generals don’t.
Within days of the cease-fire, the surefooted Schwarzkopf made his first bobble in traversing the treacherous shoals of politics. In the last days of Desert Storm, coalition forces were smashing up elements of the fleeing Iraqi army. This is known as gathering up the fruits of victory. Killing the enemy’s men and destroying his equipment is one of the chief reasons why you fight a battle in the first place. The totality of the victory, however, seemed to sit uneasily on the consciousness of the television analysts. Jim Lehrer of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” suggested that the coalition forces were “shooting fish in a barrel,” and a local New York television poll declared that America was playing the bully. The next day President Bush called off the operation. In a television interview with David Frost, General Schwarzkopf made it clear that he had wanted to carry on the pursuit of Iraqi forces. Schwarzkopf was swiftly and publicly rebuked bv the White House and recanted.
It was an old scenario. First he said it. Then he said he didn’t say what he said. Then he said it was all the media’s fault for asking him to say what he said in the first place.
The beat goes on.