Academic journal article Naval War College Review

"No Bad Stories"

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

"No Bad Stories"

Article excerpt

The American Media-Military Relationship

The 1999 air war over Kosovo re-ignited a feud between the military and the news media that is generally believed to have been a permanent undercurrent of media-military relations since the Vietnam War. The events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent declaration by President George W. Bush of a "War on Terrorism" temporarily drove the feud underground. But soon the media began, albeit tentatively, to second-guess Pentagon strategy in Afghanistan. Indeed, the general consensus among military people, the press, and academics is that a cooperative working relationship between the press and the military that had been established in World War II collapsed in the 1960s. While these groups disagree significantly on whether media criticism of U.S. policy and strategy contributed to America's defeat in Southeast Asia, the view that Vietnam was a turning point in media-military relations is widespread. "The War in Southeast Asia changed the fundamental contours of military-media relations,' write a sociologist and a Pentagon reporter. "As in World War II, a group of young correspondents-David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Malcome Browne, Peter Arnett and Charley Mohr-who arrived in Vietnam in the early 1960s, became famous for their reporting. Unlike World War II, however, these reporters incurred the wrath of the official establishment for their contrary accounts of the war's progress.''1 Paradoxically, according to this view, media-military relations may have been better when censorship was in force, as in World War II.2

This article will argue, however, that the strained relationship between the media and the U.S. military has nothing to do with censorship-for the simple reason that media-military relations have always been rocky, never more than in World War II. The difference between World War II and Vietnam was not the presence of censorship but the absence of victory. In other conflicts, victory has erased memories of a troubled relationship; after Vietnam, the media was caught up in the quest for a scapegoat. Furthermore, the nebulous goals of the War on Terrorism, the fact that it is likely to be a prolonged operation, and the inherent difficulties from a media perspective of covering a war fought from the air and in the shadows virtually guarantee a degeneration of the relationship between two institutions with an inherent distrust of each other.

How then do we account for chronically poor media-military relations in America? The basic explanation is that the natures and goals of the two institutions are fundamentally in tension. For its part, the military, like most bureaucracies, prefers to do its business behind closed doors-all the more so because the nature of its business is so often shocking to the sensitivities of the public, on whose support it must rely. Therefore, the military inherently sees the media as a subversive, rather than a positive, element. The press, however, responds to the requirement of democracy to expose the actions of the government-including, especially, the military-to public scrutiny. Moreover, in recent years, the tendency to formulate U.S. foreign policy with little or no formal debate between the administration and the Congress has left a vacuum that the media has rushed to fill. Even were that not the case, however, the press has a responsibility to question the matching of policy to strategy.

Theoretically, this interaction is mutually beneficial, for it could allow the two institutions to work symbiotically to build support for policy and to tell the military's story. Nevertheless, there is a shadow over media-military relations, which the legacy of the Vietnam War has darkened.

Finally, future trends are likely to make media-military relations more, rather than less, difficult. An increase in humanitarian operations, the reliance on air campaigns and stand-off weapons, the difficulties of covering a "terrorist war," the emergence of "information operations," and changes in the media environment pose severe challenges. …

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