Loose Lips Float Ships!

“Do as I say, not as I do”—it could be Donald Rumsfeld’s credo. Is it possible for the Pentagon to provide information without censorship? Why would we classify information as top secret or confidential if not to “censor” it, that is, keep it from being released? The idea “that propaganda has no place in DoD public affairs programs” is equally ridiculous. Is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that the military, including its commander in chief, uses the news media to support the psychological warfare campaign in the ongoing war in Iraq? The talking points and the reports from the embedded journalists are aimed at two target audiences: Iraqi commanders and the world court of public opinion.

Secretary Rumsfeld is using the news media as a political tool to shape public opinion and support for military operations. Not understanding that could end a military officer’s career. At a Pentagon briefing in October 2001, Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold reported that the “Taliban have been eviscerated.” Rumsfeld went on national television and took exception to Newbold’s remarks, saying he was “mistaken.” I know Greg Newbold—he’s a man of honor and integrity. For me, if Greg Newbold says the Taliban have been eviscerated, they’ve been eviscerated. For inscrutable political reasons, Rumsfeld apparently did not want that piece of information released at that time. Shortly thereafter, Newbold requested early retirement.

The military-media relationship has to be a symbiotic relationship. We can’t live or function without each other. Each of us has a role in society and each has to understand and accommodate the other. Ironically, if we’re each doing our jobs, we will always be adversaries in our symbiotic relationship—there will always be information the military wants to withhold and the news media will always be trying to get it.

In Los Angeles and in Somalia, I used the media. But I was always truthful. Never did I tell a lie to satisfy a military objective. The “art” of what I did for a living was in knowing which truths I would tell, and when I would tell them. That approach can, and did, satisfy both public affairs and psychological warfare operations. The media’s responsibility in such an environment is to be educated, to know the right questions to ask, and to have the spine to ask them.

Today, however, the Pentagon deals with the media in a different way. On March 9, the Pentagon published a nine-page “Public Affairs Guidance for Possible Combat Operations in Iraq.” The plan is a major change from the way the Pentagon did business with the media during the war in Afghanistan. It calls for “embedding” 500 journalists with front-line combat troops. Embedding gives the Pentagon their best opportunity to influence how the war will be reported. Reporter Jonathan Alter credits Clarke, the Pentagon spokesperson, for “devising about as good a solution to the logistics of combat coverage as the press could ask for.”

Whatever else it is, the plan is a major step forward in improving military-media relations. In the days before the war started, our troops waited, while embedded media flooded the airwaves and filled column inches with stories that reflected the commitment and dedication of our service men and women. For the Pentagon, it was a PR windfall. Of course, sustained combat operations in a messy ground war will ultimately determine the value of this new arrangement for the media, the military, and the public. Frustrations and anxiety will mount when reporters are unable to file as the forces get closer to Baghdad, due to tactical operations. Satellite feeds may be jammed if the military senses Iraqi forces are monitoring their movements in the city. Success or failure will be measured by how well the two are able to manage the situation when their objectives may diverge.

The real issue, though, is that the Department of Defense wants to use the embedded media to “correct disinformation/distortions as quickly as possible.” Even though the intent is to offset Saddam Hussein’s propaganda efforts, that choice of words suggests that the news media is being used as a political tool to shape public opinion which brings into question the ethical issues of the military’s use of the media.

I believe using the media to satisfy military objectives is fine, as long as the issue is how and when truthful information is used. After all, that’s what public relations is all about. If you want to judge the media’s real independence and objectivity, watch how journalists respond to disputed information—especially when the Pentagon and the White House disagree about a report, and try too hard to control and shape the information being released. That will be the best test yet of the uneasy relationship between the media and the military.

Jerry Broeckert is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. His 31 years in the Marine Corps included 11 years as a public affairs officer. He is a Minnesota native.

 

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