Friday, June 30, 2006

The media-military relationship

I came across this article in the Naval War College Review today. It's from 2002, but it's still a good exploration of why the media and the military so often find themselves at odds.

The author, Douglas Porch, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.

A choice and perhaps surprising quote:

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.

Indeed. Contrary to popular myth, the press during World War II was every bit as contentious as it is now.

And what about Vietnam? The canonical story is that it was the first "TV war", in which the press had nearly unrestricted and real-time access to soldiers, units and battlefields -- and then used that access to turn the public against the war. We didn't lose Vietnam on the battlefield, goes the mantra -- we lost it at home, our will to win sapped by defeatist media coverage.

This explanation, however, has been discredited by numerous studies. In fact, press coverage was generally favorable until the Tet offensive of 1968. As later became clear, that dramatic campaign was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong; nonetheless, it blasted the credibility of claims by the White House and Westmoreland that the United States and South Vietnam were on the threshold of victory. The critical tone adopted by the press thereafter “confirm[ed] the widespread public view held well before Tet, that the people had been victims of a massive deception” and that the prospects for success were in fact doubtful.

In fact, then, the press did not so much create public opposition as reflect it. And the government had no one to blame for that but itself. By routinely lying to the press (and thus the public) and painting a rosy picture of the war, their credibility vanished when Tet and subsequent actions exposed their deception.

And what about the media glamorizing war protesters? That's mostly myth, too. Press coverage of violent antiwar protests tended to increase support for the war by showing protesters in an unflattering light.

So what drives the poor relationship between the media and the military? Culture and mission, mostly. Setting aside hard-to-prove issues like "media bias", you just have two groups with different yet important goals.

Journalists want to shine light into dark places, to expose abuses of power, and to force public debate over issues that might otherwise never receive democratic scrutiny.

The military, like any bureaucracy, prefers to conduct it's business in private. Moreover, it's business is war -- the professional management and application of violence. This is inherently an awful thing that rarely looks good on camera. Moreover, the military necessarily breeds a culture of "team players" who adhere to strict discipline and often display a near-obsession with loyalty and security. Throw in operational security concerns, and one can understand why they're leery of, suspicious of or just plain disgusted by reporters.

So you end up with the classic standoff:

Military people typically believe that reporters, untutored in the fundamentals of the military profession, are psychologically unprepared to deal with the realities of combat. They fear that reporters, in quests for sensationalism rather than truth, may publish stories or images that breach security, cost lives, or undermine public support. For their part, reporters insist upon their professional obligation and constitutional duty to report the news. They consider the military’s culture closed, its insistence on operational secrecy exaggerated, and its “command climate” a barrier to outside scrutiny.

Both are right, to a degree; each reflect different facets of what it means to live in and defend a free society. Soldiers defend society from outside threats; journalists defend it from internal threats and the government itself. As with many such things, this comes down to an exercise in line-drawing; and the biggest problems arise when one side or the other tries to swing the pendulum too far in one direction.

But in the end, warfare in a democracy requires approval of the people. And that means the military needs the press.

Warfare is a political act. Political leaders, in democracies at least, must inform the public about foreign policy goals; the military must convince the public that it can achieve those goals at an acceptable cost; and both must do so largely through the press. Press reports of success and progress strengthen and extend public support. The media also familiarize the public with the military and with the complexity of its tasks. In short, the media offers the military a means to tell its story.


Familiarizing the public with the military is a crucial strategic need in this day of volunteer soldiers, when the share of the population that knows somebody in uniform has shrunk to tiny proportions.

The press needs the military, too: military connections are often the only way to gain access to the battlefield and to military deliberations -- the kind of access that lets a democracy know what is being done in its name. A press that cannot intelligently and fully cover the military in peacetime also cannot competently cover it in wartime -- and such a press is useless as a foundation of democracy.

The media-military relationship will always be a contentious one. But ultimately, that's a good thing. As long as a reasonable balance can be struck, their competing interests form a smaller version of the checks-and-balances that make our governmental structure so durable. The press provides public oversight -- and understanding -- of the military; the military uses the press to get its side of the story out. And that helps ensure that our military is used in support of democracy instead of to its detriment.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Douglas said...

I didn't know that the Chicago Tribune in 1942 effectively disclosed that we had broken Japanese codes until yesterday. So yes, I concur that implacable media opponents is not a new thing. Furthermore, Lincoln had an implacable media opponent in Wilbur Storey and the Chicago Times.

7/02/2006 8:15 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Of course, the article takes a much broader view of media coverage than that single incident.

Speaking of Lincoln, did you know that he was the lone Representative to speak out against the 1848 war with Mexico? It nearly ended his political career. But 12 years later he wins the presidency and leads the nation through the bloodiest war in our history.

If he were running today, he would have been labeled a weak pacifist, with critics saying he could not be trusted to successfully conduct a war.

7/02/2006 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Bec said...

Thanks for the fascinating article! I learned a great deal. It's the sort of thing I've been looking for in moderate blogs (hard to find!) Maybe I'll send a copy to my Dad. I'm looking for middle ground and clearer understanding these days. Thanks again.
I also appreciated knowing what was said between Condi and Sergei. I'd heard it mentioned in the media but didn't get the full story. I agree with you that there is something reassuring about it. I like her much better when she isn't doing "talking points."
(I'm glad I found your blog)

7/03/2006 10:55 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Bec: Thanks for the kind comments! I'm glad you found the piece interesting. That's what I'm here for. ;)

7/05/2006 10:36 PM  

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