Magazine article Editor & Publisher

How the Public Can Win the Military-Media Battle

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

How the Public Can Win the Military-Media Battle

Article excerpt

How the press covers wars is too important, as correspondent John Fialka has written, "to be left to the press or the military to decide in a vacuum--wars live in history books for thousands of years."

All of us li8ve with the consequences of wars for always. So how we live depends in large measure on how we understand those wars and, obviously, how well we understand them depends on whether we have learned about them only through a government that controls all the evidence, or also through an independent, free press which shares in that evidence.

The United States has tried it both ways--a secret war in Grenada, mostly-open wars otherwise--and, while the American public always wants news, it also usually supports government censorship of some sort when battle is under way.

Most recently on our minds is the Gulf war. In the immediate aftermath of that fighting the popular wisdom was that the press had lost the "media-military war." Secretary of State James Baker even told as a joke what many of his government colleagues took as a truth:

"After Desert Storm who could not be moved by the sight of that poor demoralized rabble--outwitted, outflanked, outmaneuvered by the U.S. military. But, I think, given time, the press will bounce back!"

Pretty good instant insight there but, recalling history, you will not be surprised to know that the situation was more complex, and the more we study what happened the better we understand it.

We now know that there was an amazing dichotomy: news about the U.S. Marines moved rather well; news about the U.S. Army "drifted into a black hole of the Army's own making," in Fialka's words.

It happened primarily because the Army looked at the hundreds of correspondents on hand an just sort of gave up, while the Marines shrugged and worked to make a plus of a difficult duty.

That dichotomy developed mostly because the Army regarded the press as an evil, while the Marines--maybe they read more history--regarded the press as a necessary evil.

Again, Fialka's post-battle analysis sums it up in the words of Marines from the scene: "It is not that Marines love the press--we just regarded them as an environmental feature of the battlefield, kind of like the rain. If it rains you get wet."

So the point is, this is interesting stuff to study, and the specifics can even be fun, but we are sholars, and must work too. We must search for themes and trends and principles and predictors and lessons.

So, whichever war you are thinking about at the moment, let me ask you to recall the three great imperatives about battle-line news--imperatives which flow from our open society. These are the constitutional and historical yardsticks which measure the American press in wartime and the American government in wartime. These are the analytical filters through which you can run the specifics of Lookout Mountain just as well as of Desert Storm.

Then, with these three great imperatives in mind we can mull over whichever specifics suit you--some great ambush, maybe.

At the end, I'll summon up the boldness of Stonewall Jackson, the guts of Ernie Pyle, maybe the folly of George Custer, and give you Friedheim's Four Guidelines for what our current commander in chief might call "the new-world-order thing" for future press-military cooperation.

Firts, what are the historical and philosophical perspectives within which military-media essues exist?

Well, since the Revolutionary War, American journalists traditionally have been allowed to accompany American troops on military operations, even when those actions depended on the element of surprise. Such access has furthered the vital interest of the public in having independent accounts of the actions of our uniformed men and women in combat, beyond those reports issued by government officials.

Military-mission security and troop-safety interests have been protected by limiting the number of journalists accompanying the troops, by voluntary reporting restraints, by limited censorship of information that might aid the enemy, or by delay in the filing of dispatches--but not by exclusion or sequestering of all journalists. …

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