School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


'No Bad Stories': The American Military-Media Relationship by Douglas Porch

Naval War College Review, Winter 2002

The American Media-Military Relationship

Douglas Porch

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. Nevertheless, the two institutions must recognize that it is in the interests of both to make the relationship work.


Poor media-military relations are in reality symptomatic of a deeper issue for civil-military relations in the United States. One of the sources of misunderstandings between the media and the military is the widely held perception among conservatives, both inside and outside the military, that the press was largely responsible for America's defeat in the Vietnam War. This "subversion" is held to have been a new departure in media-military relations, perpetrated by a new generation of skeptical "liberal" reporters, different from their predecessors.

In fact, however, the relationship between the media and the military did not suddenly collapse during the Vietnam War. Animosity between the two is as old as the foundations of the Republic itself. During the Revolution, George Washington complained that loyalist newspapers undermined patriotic morale, while patriotic ones lacked the most elementary notions of military secrecy. Soon afterward, officers sent by President John Adams to impose taxes on Pennsylvania farmers publicly flogged newspaper editors who criticized their actions. In 1814, during the New Orleans campaign, Andrew Jackson jailed and attempted to court-martial a local editor who had dared to publish an article without submitting it for censorship. The Mexican War of 1846 was the first in which papers competed to publish stories sent back by the newly invented telegraph and the Pony Express. This produced a nineteenth-century "CNN effect"; political leaders as well as the general public learned of developments from press stories that arrived before the official reports. The Associated Press was founded in 1848 to pool reporting resources, disseminate correspondence from soldiers at the front, and communicate the government's war goals to the public. Also in that war, the military published "camp newspapers," an early public-affairs attempt to keep up troop morale. The civilian press used them as sources "from the seat of the war."


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.


During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln realized early on that newspapers would be a key component in sustaining support in a deeply split North. In April 1861 the government took control of telegraph lines leading to Washington and in August threatened court-martial should any of the five hundred Northern journalists covering the war breach security. The noncombatant status of the 150 or so correspondents who reported from the front was seldom respected. General William T. Sherman, a firm believer in press censorship, blamed the Union defeat in the first battle of Bull Run on the publication of orders of battle in Washington and New York newspapers. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton seized newspapers that were too liberal with military information, while manipulating others into publishing false reports. This did not prevent "Copperhead" papers in the North from vehemently attacking Lincoln and the war.

Neither is press-driven policy a recent phenomenon. The "yellow journalism" promoted by rivals William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer is often blamed for provoking the popular agitation that led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. Major General Nelson A. Miles replicated Stanton's manipulation of the press, deliberately misleading reporters about the location of his intended landing in Puerto Rico. The Espionage Act, which accompanied America's entry into World War I, followed by the Sedition Act of 1918, severely restricted the ability of the press to publish information on military operations or war production, let alone disparage the uniform and the flag. Woodrow Wilson established a Committee on Public Information that both regulated censorship and produced propaganda for the American cause. Credentialed war correspondents, sworn to tell the truth, reported from military camps well behind the lines in France. General John Pershing, commanding the American Expeditionary Force, accredited only thirty-one reporters and forbade even these to travel to the front lines.3 Fear of a "stab in the back" lurked behind these measures; censorship was justified by the need "to keep up the spirit of the armies and people of our side."4


World War II is often viewed as the golden age of media-military relations - a time when the country stood fully behind the war effort and the press reflected the patriotic mood. Civilian reporters were treated as part of "America's team," willingly acquiescing to "press codes" as a condition of accreditation by the War Department. The identities and movements of forces and materiel, production figures, casualties, and locations of archives and art treasures were forbidden to reporters; even weather forecasts and temperatures in major cities were censored. But the press accepted censorship with barely a murmur, and the reward for compliance was substantial - relatively free access to combat theaters.

Wearing the uniforms of officers, journalists joined press camps attached to and moving with combat forces. Print journalists, more or less "embedded" in units, wrote, often poignantly, of the horrors of battle and the suffering of the GIs. Twenty-seven reporters accompanied the D-day assault in Normandy. The precursor of the modern "press pool" emerged among radio correspondents, serving as a "neutral voice" representative of all correspondents. Some servicemen who had been journalists before the war were made "combat correspondents" after basic training; their stories and photographs were released, after censorship, by the various service departments. Overall, the Office of War Information and the Office of Censorship exercised their control through persuasion, though the Espionage Act always lurked menacingly in the background.

Both pools and "embedded reporters" foreshadowed recent practice; many broader patterns now thought of as contemporary also emerged in World War II. In the first place, the press sometimes shaped policy and influenced strategy. For instance, descriptions of valiant Britain beneath the German "blitz" in the summer of 1940 helped to firm up the destroyers-for-bases arrangement and ultimately Lend-Lease. "Press and radio commentators were uniformly hostile, some passionately so," to the agreement General Mark Clark struck in November 1942 with Vichy admiral Jean Darlan to halt the fighting between Vichy French and Allied troops in North Africa. "I have been called a Fascist and almost a Hitlerite," General Dwight Eisenhower, Clark's superior, complained.5 Press criticism of the Darlan deal propelled the "unconditional surrender" policy adopted by the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Newsweek continually pointed up the disparity between American goals in Europe and the resources available, as well as differences among the Allies over the future of Europe, reviving the arguments of congressional isolationists.6

The press also, as now, heavily influenced the fortunes of prominent commanders; even the most popular generals could be second-guessed. Drew Pearson was prepared to deflate the most exalted reputations in his syndicated column, "Washington Merry-go-Round." In the opinion of Eisenhower's son John, the press came perilously close to ending Ike's career.7 His decision in September 1943 to maintain Marshal Pietro Badoglio, one of Mussolini's ex-henchmen, and King Victor Emanuel in power in Italy was denounced by the New York Times as the continuation of military dictatorship supported by a puppet king.8 After the Normandy breakout in August 1944, Newsweek allowed retired British general J. F. C. Fuller to criticize Ike for violating the principle of "concentration of force." Even in making Eisenhower its "Man of the Year" in December 1944, Time cautioned that Hitler's Ardennes offensive cast doubt on the Supreme Allied Commander's strategic judgement.9

It is often forgotten that some officers who received favorable press coverage assiduously cultivated reporters. "Without preaching or complaining, [Eisenhower] told [correspondents] frankly about what was going wrong, and made it possible for them to see the problems with their own eyes. He then counted on them to make the country aware of what was needed."10 One correspondent who had expected to find Eisenhower "jumping all over the place issuing orders right and left" instead discovered a man "more like a big industrial executive who, on the day the plant is breaking production records, will show visitors around the mill as if he had nothing else to do."11 In contrast, commanders whom reporters thought inadequately prepared were particular targets. The press, for instance, alerted the American public to shortcomings revealed by the Louisiana Maneuvers of August-September 1941.


In fact, the relationship between the media and the military did not suddenly collapse during the Vietnam War. Animosity between the two is as old as the foundations of the Republic itself.


Further, "investigative journalists" sought out opportunities to roast aloof or abusive commanders, like George S. Patton - who slapped and cursed soldiers hospitalized for shell shock. A "gentlemen's agreement" initially suppressed that incident, but in an egregious departure from journalistic ethics, war correspondents demanded that Eisenhower remove Patton, under threat of going public. When Eisenhower tried to compromise, Drew Pearson broke the story on his syndicated radio show. The subsequent public tempest was so violent that Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had to justify to the Senate Eisenhower's decision not to court-martial Patton. That incident, and others like it, demonstrated the high price political leaders had to pay to defend generals who offended norms of democratic behavior.12

In the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur was notorious for pressuring reporters to file stories that reflected positively on him. However, he could not control reporters not accredited to his command. In January 1944, the American Mercury suggested that MacArthur's heroic image was a Republican-manufactured myth to use against Roosevelt. The Army War College library distributed the article to American servicemen all over the world; Republicans in the Senate blasted the War Department for carrying out a "smear." A blistered War Department subsequently prevented Harper's Magazine from publishing a second unflattering article; its editor objected, "This situation is intolerable in a free country." In the summer of 1944 the press publicized the fact that MacArthur was the only senior general allowed to have his wife in theater. It also reported, unfairly, that he made his headquarters in luxurious colonial mansions while his troops battled malaria.13

The surprise attack that opened the Korean War in 1950 found the military completely unprepared to handle the reporters who arrived to cover the panic and confusion of the war's early days. This inevitably provoked criticism that an uncensored press was giving information of use to the enemy and undermining the morale of United Nations forces. Local commanders responded with their own rules; ultimately the Overseas Press Club petitioned the Pentagon to replace this patchwork of "voluntary guidelines" with formal, standard ones. MacArthur (now supreme commander of UN forces in Korea) imposed formal censorship, forbidding reporters to criticize, among other things, military reverses, failures of U.S. equipment, or the South Korean government;14 true to form, MacArthur also banned all articles critical of his leadership.15 His successor, Matthew Ridgway, virtually barred the press from the armistice talks.

The Vietnam War and Its Legacies

Vietnam has been called the "first TV war," a test of the American public's tolerance for battle brought into its living rooms. Journalists were allowed practically unrestricted access, accompanying units and freely filing stories, photographs, and film. The idea that reporters opposed to the war used this freedom to publish negative stories that contributed significantly to the final defeat quickly became standard; it was espoused by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as by the U.S. commander in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, General William Westmoreland.

This explanation, however, has been discredited by numerous studies.16 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.17 Arguably, then, the press did not create public skepticism but simply reflected public concern about casualties and the lack of tangible progress. Certainly, neither the White House nor the military was honest with the press. Official briefings in Saigon - dismissed by the press as the "Five o'Clock Follies" - were remarkably uninformative, when not deceptive. On the other hand, coverage of the increasingly violent antiwar protests shored up support for the war, because it showed the peace movement in an unflattering light.

One cannot blame the press for asking searching questions about a poor policystrategy match. That is its duty. Nevertheless, the impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. media-military relations has been profound. The press today regards the practically unrestricted access and uncensored reporting that it enjoyed in Vietnam as the norm, not a historical anomaly. The more superficial, or arrogant, of its members further believe that Vietnam confirmed and validated the power of the press to influence public opinion and, by extension, policy.

The military, for its part, saw proof of its long-standing suspicion that the press is an adversary and must be kept at arm's length during conflicts.18 The Army in particular feels that a new, and distinctly destructive, press was born in Vietnam - skeptical of authority, liberal in political outlook, and invariably hostile to military values and missions. The mistake of Vietnam, many military people feel, was to give the media free rein, license that they used to subvert popular support. A piece of "military wisdom" emerged from Vietnam: "Real men don't talk to the press."19


If the poor media-military relations of today are not wholly a product of the Vietnam War but have existed throughout the nation's history, how does one account for them? First, the institutional cultures of the two communities are virtually antithetical. Whether or not the media have a liberal bias, it is certainly true that journalists see it as their role to expose abuses of power by large institutions, and in the military arena to publicize instances where democratic and military values clash. As a practical matter, however, the press is fragmented into many competing and self-regulating subgroups; there are no broad professional standards. "The great strength of American journalism is its amateur nature," insists one correspondent. "Anyone can become a reporter. This guarantees many different perspectives."20 It also guarantees that journalists have a great deal of competition; each must not only collect information but package it in a form that will sell to the general public - and therefore be blessed by editors - before other journalists do. Reporters are therefore under great pressure to bend, even break, rules in pursuit of a "story" - and a by-line.

If the world of the journalist is freewheeling and entrepreneurial, the task of managing violence imposes on the soldier an organization and attitude that is hierarchical and disciplined. The soldier is a "team player" in an institution with strict professional and ethical standards as well as rigorous, even ritualized, procedures. "The natural tendency of the military [is] to keep things under control," an Army public affairs officer observes.21 The military man or woman particularly values loyalty and is deeply suspicious of, even offended by, the "publish and be damned" journalistic ethos. Further, if recruitment, outlook, and technology make the "Fourth Estate" a heterogeneous institution - if it is an "institution" at all - a number of factors, especially the fact that soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen live apart from civilian society, tend to impose insularity upon them and to homogenize their attitudes. The political outlook of military people tends to be conservative.22

Second, the goals of the two institutions are different. The journalist seeks to tell a story of such interest that the public will pay for it; every member of the military, however, is to pursue national objectives by fulfilling specific missions assigned by political leaders. Moreover, the mechanism by which the military performs its role is war, or the threat of war - and war is an awful thing, a job the military is understandably reluctant to perform in public. 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.

These two dichotomies are in themselves the raw material for deterioration of the media-military relationship, but a third factor, some journalists argue, aggravates it - the increasingly haphazard way U.S. foreign policy is formulated. All concerned recognize, at least in theory, that media scrutiny is an aspect of a healthy civilian control of the military and also an exercise of free speech - both cornerstones of the Constitution, which military people are sworn to uphold. In that light, media activism becomes especially necessary when military operations are undertaken after only minimal public debate among elected officials. Many journalists argue that Washington seems to assume a public grant of "virtual consent" for the employment of military force whenever the president chooses, what one reporter calls a "fire-and-forget foreign policy."23 They hold that the media have a charge to step into this policy vacuum, to supply the information and provide the deliberation that officials and politicians withhold and shirk - and even to shape policy. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that good will crumbled (as we will see) during the Kosovo conflict and appeared to be on shaky ground during the early stages of the assault on Afghanistan. The real question is why such deterioration was a surprise at the time; it had been foreshadowed in every American military involvement since Vietnam, especially in the Persian Gulf.


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. The press, as we have seen, has its own incentives to report on military affairs, and it needs the military's cooperation to do so effectively. Therefore, both the media and the military have reasons to work with the other in a symbiotic relationship.

For the military's part, the necessary first step is to recognize that the press is a fact of life, a feature of the battlefield environment - "kind of like the rain," as one Marine put it. "If it rains, you operate wet."24 Unfortunately, past attempts to establish effective, let alone harmonious, arrangements have foundered on hostility and distrust bordering sometimes on paranoia.

Press Pools

In the 1980s, the media and the Pentagon agreed on ground rules for cooperation. Each major command was issued public-affairs guidance acknowledging the right of the public and Congress to "timely and accurate information" about military operations, to the extent compatible with security. It set out precise rules on the accreditation of reporters, standards for stories, security reviews, and the support of media in combat zones.

The plans were first tested in URGENT FURY, the 1983 operation that rescued U.S. medical students on the island of Grenada. Two serious flaws quickly emerged. First, rather than integrating media affairs in its planning, the command simply handed off the press to a specialized corps of public affairs officers. Because these officers were themselves kept in the dark, they were unable to satisfy the press's curiosity about military goals, preparations, and progress. The second problem grew from the first - the military was logistically unresponsive to press needs, largely because the media had not been factored into operational planning. As a consequence, over six hundred disgruntled reporters were marooned in comfortable exile on Barbados while the story played out, unseen and hence unreported, on Grenada.25

The resulting media outcry prodded the military to review its practices.26 A commission was convened under Major General Winant Sidle, U.S. Army, to reconcile press access with operational security. The Sidle Commission's major accomplishment was the Department of Defense National Media Pool, created in 1985. Journalists nominated by the major news organizations and agreeing in advance to abide by security regulations and to share reports with nonpool reporters would be ready to move to the "seat of war" at a moment's notice. The Media Pool would operate as a group only until the "main body" of reporters appeared. Practice deployments in Central America suggested that the pool was logistically manageable, would produce a core of reporters versed in military affairs, and would ensure prompt coverage of events.

The pool was first mobilized operationally during EARNEST WILL, the reflagging of Kuwaiti merchant ships in 1987-88; it encountered problems that would become acute in subsequent deployments. The next opportunity came in December 1989, when U.S. troops were ordered into Panama. Unfortunately, that experience showed that old attitudes had not yet died. The secretary of defense, Richard Cheney - who held the media responsible for undermining public morale in Vietnam and "did not look on the press as an asset" - delayed calling out the pool.27 The result was that nonpool reporters simply traveled to Panama on their own, to practice "four-wheel-drive journalism"; when the press pool was finally mobilized, its members, all specially prepared for the job, were fobbed off with briefings and not allowed to cover the action.28


"I have been called a Fascist and almost a Hitlerite," General Dwight Eisenhower complained.


If Panama did little to foster trust between the media and the military, the war in the Persian Gulf lifted matters to a new plateau of acrimony. At the outset of DESERT SHIELD, things looked generally promising. Cheney quickly activated the seventeen-member Media Pool - only to learn that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia refused to grant visas to reporters. Some journalists simply flew to Bahrain and crossed the border into Saudi Arabia illegally - the "unilaterals," prowling on the margins of the conflict, in constant fear of expulsion by the U.S. military or the Saudi police.29 When CNN began to broadcast from Baghdad, however, Fahd was persuaded to lift his ban. The pool got its initial briefing five days after the first U.S. troops deployed in Saudi Arabia in early August. It remained in existence for three weeks, even as the forces in Saudi Arabia were being swamped by 1,600 other reporters. In response to this massive media interest in the first large-scale military deployment since Vietnam, the military organized new, ad hoc press pools; accredited reporters who agreed to abide by security regulations would be escorted in small groups to visit military positions and be briefed by unit commanders. "Noncompetitive" ground rules made photographs, notes, and stories available to reporters not in the pools; the military would transmit the stories back to parent news organizations, using a communications facility in Dhahran.

Despite appearances of success, however, the pool system as practiced in the Gulf War had several problems. The primary issue was what seemed to journalists to amount to censorship and manipulation, arising from tight restrictions on all media travel. Press veterans of Vietnam were rapidly disabused of the notion that they would be free to flit about the war zone, then return to Dhahran to file stories. In fact, most reporters never saw the war; only 186 reporters ever joined the news pools, less than 10 percent of the journalists enrolled by the Central Command's Joint Information Bureau.

Also, journalists rapidly concluded that logistical support for the pools was low in the military's priorities, and that this was intentional. Requests to visit units were frequently rejected because of lack of transport (when not declined for security concerns). The system was cumbersome and unresponsive to breaking news. The military did not file pool products expeditiously. The media tours were "too canned." Ultimately, chafing under restrictions, journalists charged that delays and press-shy officers reflected a command mandate that there were to be "no bad stories."30 Worse, from the press viewpoint, "When the war happened, we couldn't see it."31 Veteran reporter Walter Cronkite later insisted that "the Pentagon's censorship policy" in the Persian Gulf "severely restricted the right of reporters and photographers to accompany our troops into action, as had been permitted in all our previous wars."32 Two Australian scholars concluded that "the campaign to liberate Kuwait was perhaps the most underreported and media-managed conflict in history."33

The U.S. Marines - who perhaps realize more than the other services the value of the press - welcomed journalists, but ironically, even this openness backfired. The media later claimed that it had been unwittingly co-opted into an elaborate deception designed to draw attention to the Marine amphibious force off the coast - a force that the joint commander in chief, General Norman Schwarzkopf, did not intend to employ - so as to distract the Iraqis from the true objectives. The press charged that General Schwarzkopf had deceived it in other ways as well. One was the false impression given that precision, laser-guided ordnance dominated the air campaign. Another was exaggeration of the success of Patriot missiles in intercepting Iraqi Scuds (although these claims had been made in good faith). To such complaints the military simply replied that it could not have allowed the media to reveal the coalition's true plans - especially not the "left hook" through the desert of southern Iraq into Kuwait.34

If it strained media-military relations, the pool system also - by its emphasis on collective effort and shared products - divided the journalistic fraternity itself. Journalists are competitors by nature, not team players. "[Competition] is their livelihood. They don't like the other guy's take on a story. [A public affairs officer] cannot tell other reporters what each is working on. That's death!"35 Unable to compete freely for stories, reporters in the Gulf and their employers sought ways to circumvent the rules. The larger press organizations plotted to exclude members of smaller or independent ones from pools or groups selected for particular visits; certain "nontraditional" media in the field, like women's magazines, fought to be included. Reporters jostled to lobby public affairs officers or generals for priority. Such infighting, combined with arbitrary selection procedures for pool trips, sometimes pushed aside reporters experienced in military matters in favor of novices.36 A few journalists evaded pool restrictions by becoming "pet journalists," willing to report favorably on a general or unit in return for access to the front.


"The great strength of American journalism is its amateur nature. Anyone can become a reporter. This guarantees many different perspectives."


Ultimately, in the view of media cognoscenti, the Gulf War pool system produced a mediocre product. It seemed to these veteran reporters an undifferentiated pap, distilled from the collective observations of the few journalists allowed into the field, rather than the creative perceptions of individual reporters free to fashion stories out of the raw drama they observed. They thought the journalistic quality of pool stories "depressing. . . . [A]bout one in ten has anything in it that's useful. . . . It's really pretty superficial stuff."37

Pools, therefore, are not popular with the press, which sees them as attempts to limit access and thereby censor, even manipulate, information. The immediate postwar result was the issuance of new guidelines declaring, "Open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations."38 The directive retains the option of censorship - a clause that the media decided not to protest, believing that "security reviews" would soon become unenforceable, for reasons discussed below.

Embedded Media

The advent of "operations other than war" and journalists' objections to the pool system revived the concept of "embedded media," an approach first used in World War II and Vietnam, applied in Haiti in 1994, and expanded for the Bosnia intervention the next year. In this arrangement, a reporter is assigned a unit, deploys with it, and lives with it throughout a lengthy period of operations. All in uniform are considered spokespersons for the military and for their missions. However, interviewers must nevertheless respect soldiers' privacy, as well as operational security. Rules also prohibit reporting on intelligence collection, special operations, or casualties.

"Embedding" reporters in units has much to offer both sides. These reporters, who usually bond with their units, are likely to appreciate the difficulties of the mission and tend to file favorable reports.39 On the other hand, the military cannot hope to mask bad policy or hide incompetence from such journalists. In general, living together breaks down media-military hostility, allows the press to blend into the operational landscape, and in turn makes soldiers far less self-conscious about the presence of reporters - whom they often respect for sharing their dangers and hardships. The reporters get their stories, and the military gets free and generally favorable publicity for a job it performs with great credit. "I learn stuff every day with a unit," a veteran correspondent observes. "I've never been in a front line unit that didn't enjoy having reporters. . . . [They see it] as a sign that the American people are interested. The troops really love it. I was called 'our reporter.'"40

"Embedding" also attracts criticism, however. The media worry that reporters may identify too closely with "their" units and lose journalistic objectivity. For its part, the military dreads the off-the-record conversation or the minor or poorly understood event that produces an unflattering story. Loose lips sink not only ships but careers - and few officers who run afoul of the press today are likely to receive the sustained high-level support needed to save General Patton.41 In Bosnia, reporter Tom Ricks once reported in print that an American battalion commander had told African-American troops in his command, by way of warning, that Croats are racists. The subsequent ruckus produced in the military what is called the "Ricks Rule" - that all conversations with journalists are off the record unless otherwise specified. Even that is considered weak protection against reportorial bad faith: "Any [public affairs officer] will tell you that there is no such thing as 'off the record.' There is no legal basis for it. There is only a thin journalist ethic."42 Ricks himself argues, however, that the "rule" betrays unwillingness of seniors to support subordinates, and ultimately distrust of civilian control of the military: "The amount of stuff I don't publish is astounding."43


The last decade has produced factors likely to make media-military relations more difficult than ever to manage. They include the advent of humanitarian operations, an increasing use by the United States of airpower and stand-off weapons, the "war on terrorism," and the emergence of "information operations." Further, changing technological and institutional features of news coverage have outpaced formal attempts to order media-military relations. These factors first began to manifest themselves in the Nato attempt in 1999 to expel Yugoslav troops from the province of Kosovo.


Both the media and the U.S. military embarked upon Nato's bombing campaign with deep reservations. The media was profoundly skeptical of the undertaking, an attitude that got its dealings with the military off on the wrong foot.44 Kosovo, the first war that Nato nations had fought since DESERT STORM, was scripted in the same way, less the ground invasion. Nato's fundamental assumptions - that airpower alone was sufficient, that President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia would bend to the alliance's will without a ground assault - had been debated only in private, within alliance councils and the U.S. executive branch. In agreement with broad sectors of expert and popular opinion, most correspondents believed that these assumptions amounted to wishful thinking. Most newsrooms sensed that the air strategy was simply the "lowest common denominator" available to an irresolute and deeply fractured alliance. Nor did Nato bolster its credibility with the press when its miscalculation of Milosevic's resolve became clear. Far from capitulating in a matter of days, if not hours, Milosevic remained defiant and intensified his torment of Kosovo Albanians. In the view of many journalists, neither the American nor the British peoples had an emotional investment in the conflict; both governments, the media concluded, would abandon the effort rather than undertake a ground invasion.45

Inevitably, then, the press was wary of information supplied by the military. Press conferences evoked the media's unhappy Gulf War memories of press pools, denial of access, obfuscation, and apparent manipulation; the press resolved not to be fooled twice. Because reporters had scant access to Kosovo, it could not see "ethnic cleansing." Nor could it effectively cover the air war.46 Nato-supplied videos of precise strikes made the strikes appear to be extremely accurate - but so had they appeared during the Gulf War, when only a small percentage of the coalition air arsenals turned out to have been precision guided munitions. The fact that Nato aircraft were ordered to fly higher than fifteen thousand feet over Serbia and Kosovo seemed to confirm media pessimism over the ability of air strikes to prevent ethnic cleansing.47

Humanitarian Operations

On the surface, the advent of humanitarian operations has removed several sources of tension in media-military relations. Censorship is seldom an issue; operational security is not paramount, and the military is usually unable to deny the press access to the theater even if it wished to. In fact, humanitarian intervention has stood the traditional relationship between the American military and the press on its head. Unlike wartime, national survival is not at stake; the main effort is political, not military. The deployed force is only one of several organizations involved, and its mission is merely to facilitate the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civilian governmental organizations, which have the primary tasks. "In the end, it is the NGOs' war to win or lose."48 Therefore, press pools, if deployed, are merely temporary expedients, quickly abandoned. In fact, the media usually arrive before the military does; where in wartime the military briefs reporters on the situation, in peace operations reporters are usually better informed than the soldiers.49

Still, the tensions inherent in media-military relations do not dissipate at a stroke. On the contrary, they are complicated, particularly by the presence of nongovernmental organizations. Military commanders often believe the media have drawn them into operations that they view as dilutions of their true mission of fighting wars. The root problem seems to be that humanitarian operations typically lack high-level direction;50 policy vacuums form, in which the media are susceptible to the influence of NGOs - which "are increasingly involving themselves directly in social, political, and even at times, military matters."51 NGOs, the argument goes, depend for funding on publicity and accordingly solicit the media to disseminate pictures of starving children and desperate refugees, thereby generating pressure on the politicians, who in turn catapult soldiers into altruistic but poorly conceived missions.


The media offers the military a means to tell its story. The press has its own incentives to report on military affairs. Therefore, both the media and the military have reasons to work with the other.


Perhaps, as some correspondents believe, the isolation from the media of intervention forces, in their protected compounds, puts them at a distinct disadvantage in any battle with NGOs to sway public perceptions. Others are not so sure; because nongovernmental organizations are frequently international, they lack drawing power for an American press corps focused on a national news market. Additionally, the media often find it difficult to understand a contradictory NGO culture that combines hard business attitudes with a "flaky-do-gooder" image.52

The Somalia intervention of 1992-95 began as an object lesson in media-military cooperation. The media were waiting on the beach when Navy SEALs landed as part of a "signal" to the Somali militias about the power of U.S. forces. However, relations soon went downhill. The media categorically refused thereafter to submit to military control. As the security situation deteriorated, the media images of starving Somalis were blamed for the decision to intervene in the first place, for contributing to "mission creep," and finally, for undermining popular support by focusing on casualties. For the military Somalia offered further proof of the media's power to inflict a "stab in the back," as in Vietnam.53 The operation in Haiti in September 1994, however, saw a much more harmonious relationship. Ground rules were worked out in advance, and the press willingly complied with most of the military's operational security concerns. A Joint Information Bureau, set up by the intervention force in Port-au-Prince, processed requests from 1,300 journalists to visit units. No escort officers were requested or supplied. The only hint that media might be driving policy occurred when news reports caused the U.S. military to intervene to stop beatings of Aristide supporters by paramilitary forces loyal to deposed President Raoul Cedras.

Air Campaigns and the Media

Whatever progress was made during the humanitarian operations of the 1990s was disrupted, as we have seen, in Kosovo - in part because Nato chose to fight that war with airpower alone. From a media standpoint, the air campaign meant renewed dependence on the military for information. There are only three ways, all unsatisfactory, to cover an air war. A reporter can "hitch a ride" on an aircraft; this may give technical insights into how an air war is prosecuted, but a correspondent is unlikely to be able to gauge its effects from fifteen thousand feet in the air. The second option is to sit through military briefings and look at videos of precision strikes - that is, what the military wants the press to see. This leaves the third option, which is for reporters to cross the lines to get the other side's version.

The press received a particular incentive to elicit Serb and Russian accounts when Nato and Pentagon spokesmen and the Supreme Allied Commander contradicted each other in their responses to the mistaken bombing of a convoy of refugee tractors near Djakovica on 19 April 1999. Nato "couldn't get its own story straight."54 Collateral damage, rather than ethnic cleansing and the refugee crisis, threatened to become the central issue of the Kosovo conflict, undermining the moral credibility of, and hence public support for, the campaign. The problem was compounded by the fact that Nato's stand-off air campaign made the alliance look like a ponderous Goliath assaulting a nimble David - a problem repeated in Afghanistan.55

Information Operations

Information operations, an outgrowth of "information warfare," emerge from the idea that instantaneous communications have revolutionized warfare. They have certainly revolutionized press coverage - with the result, some argue, that open media information is a more important dimension of information operations than familiar technical issues like "cyber attack."56 Kosovo focused attention on the role in conflict of media images; the view emerged that the will of a population to prosecute a conflict can be undermined by media-generated images, and that therefore the media strategy must be an integral part of a campaign plan. "Public information is a battle space," it was argued, "that must be contested and controlled like any other."57

The room for improvement was obvious. A militarily weak Milosevic repeatedly forced the Nato allies onto the defensive by showcasing collateral damage caused by bombing. Nato's slow and sometimes inaccurate responses wounded its credibility. Nato's press offices were understaffed and lacked specialists able to monitor Yugoslav media and anticipate propaganda ploys. Nato had no integrated, forceful public-relations/information campaign. Separate briefings in London, Washington, and Brussels often sent conflicting signals.

However, concentration on information operations is a potentially dangerous development in media-military - even civil-military - relations. It has led enthusiasts to view information as a commodity to be manipulated for operational advantage, rather than as a shared trust. In any case, the concept is nothing new in war; in 1870, for instance, Otto von Bismarck edited the "Ems dispatch" to goad Louis Napoleon into declaring war on Prussia. A new element was the press's willingness to go to the enemy for sources - as in Kosovo, and in Peter Arnett's famous broadcasts from Baghdad during the Gulf War - opening a channel for the enemy's own information operations. Osama Bin Laden, and even the media-shy Taliban regime, discovered Al-Jazeera and the small, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic News Agency to be useful vehicles for disseminating their messages in the Muslim world, messages that invariably found echoes in the Western news media. The perceived need to do so stems in part from the reluctance of the military to supply information, to impose "gray-outs" that leave the press hungry for material and instigate charges of secrecy and manipulation.

Some even in the defense community argue that to treat information as a "battle space" has "dreadful implications," that mixing public affairs with information operations could do great harm.58 BBC news set the "gold standard" for millions during World War II precisely in that, unlike its Axis competitors, it vowed to broadcast the bad news as well as the good. By manipulating media images for operational advantage, the military courts skepticism and hostility. The 1999 bombing of Serb television facilities suggests that in future conflicts journalists may be regarded as military targets. Foreign governments may retaliate against Western reporters, closing off an important information channel. In the end, the public may become inoculated against government pronouncements of success, as during the Vietnam War, and withdraw its support.

Finally, to treat information as "battle space" confuses operational success with strategic victory. If goals are clear, popular, and achievable at reasonable cost, no amount of media manipulation by either side will decide the issue. U.S. public support for the Kosovo war remained unshaken despite pictures of collateral damage, despite even the Chinese embassy bombing. The effectiveness of Serbian media ploys - such as posting its stories on the World Wide Web, in English - should not be exaggerated. 59

Changes in the Media Environment

Two trends in the media world - one technological, the other market related - seem to offer contradictory indications about the future of media-military interaction. Technological advances are likely to make information increasingly available to the press and independent of military control. Market trends, however, suggest that the media's dependence on the military for sellable material will increase.

In future operations in which security risks are high, the military will no doubt insist on control of information; however, "security at the source" (that is, at the level of the individual service member) will necessarily become the rule, because media infrastructures like "joint information bureaus" are already becoming irrelevant. Journalists can file directly from the field, anywhere on the globe, using cell phones, the Internet, and remote-area network data systems transmitting compressed video signals. Satellite, microwave, and fiber-optics systems are becoming miniaturized and increasingly mobile. Reporters have access to commercial satellite images that can reveal such things as troop deployments - making refusals for reasons of security to guide press pools to deployed units less credible and effective.60 In fact, the security issue may soon be reversed: an enemy missile could home on a reporter's signal. Commanders in the future may have to ask reporters willing to take that risk to move several hundred yards away from their positions first.

The advances in technology, of course, cut both ways. Satellite imagery can be easily modified. Video images are for the moment more difficult to alter, but that will change. Manufactured videos and misleading stories can be posted on the Internet. The media itself should be the first line of defense, filtering this information to determine its credibility. But if journalists suspect that they are being censored, denied information, manipulated, or deceived by their own military, they may be more inclined to give the other side's version of events the benefit of the doubt.

Notwithstanding the media's new ability to collect and disseminate information independently, it is unlikely to go entirely its own way. A balance will probably be struck, not least because the long-term market trends are poor for foreign news coverage in general, and for military stories in particular. Today the media, though multinational in organization, must increasingly focus on regional niche markets. News is a business, and polls and focus groups inform editors that the priorities of the public are local news first, foreign news last. CNN, for instance, has begun regional production to feed "foreign" news to the markets where it is not foreign. In the United States, the international news most likely to be covered is that which produces the most dramatic footage or has an American connection. To obtain such material, the U.S. media needs the military; in that framework, the military itself is the story.

The media perceives that the American public suffers from "compassion fatigue." What sells a story is not the crisis but the fact that the military arrives to do something about it. "Unless U.S. troops are involved, it is difficult to convince an editor that a story is worthwhile."61 In any case, there is strong marketing pressure on the media to conform to audience expectations; it is not in the interest even of an international news organization like CNN to show footage, or give its reporting a slant, that will offend the sensibilities of the American public. In fact, the criticism of the allegedly "liberal" American media after 11 September 2001 was that they became cheerleaders for the War on Terrorism, "a knee-jerk pandering to the public," according to Australian journalist Carwyn James, "reflecting a mood of patriotism rather than informing viewers of the complex, sometimes harsh realities they need to know." For his part, CNN president Walter Isaacson confessed, "If you get on the wrong side of public opinion, you are going to get in trouble."62This creates a great initial advantage for the military - if, that is, it embraces the media rather than shuns them.63

Indeed, ignorance and misinformation are far more dangerous for the military than is informed reporting, however critical in tone. But the media need help here. Because the press is fragmented, competitive, sometimes ignorant of military realities, and constantly whiplashed between the demands of the market and those of journalistic ethics, however defined, the quality of coverage of military events is inevitably uneven at best. Today, however, the situation is aggravated by the fact that newsrooms are no longer "old-boys networks," inclined to accept some of the military's more traditional ways as part of the journalistic landscape. The tendency of unprepared reporters, charging from crisis to crisis, unaware of the issues at stake or of how the military functions, is to frame complex matters in simplistic ways - or even to indulge in "gotcha" journalism (focusing on errors and misstatements). For its part, the military owes access to information both to Congress and the American people. Furthermore, it needs to get its story out - for the military will be competing with other groups, and enemies, eager to put their "spin" on events. To do this, it needs the media.

It will be impossible in the future to embargo news, as has sometimes been done in the past. An artificial news vacuum would be filled by "on-line correspondents," nongovernmental organizations, and even the enemy. The media gravitates toward the sources that are most obvious and available; tyrants and terrorists like Saddam, Milosevic, and Bin Laden learned to welcome reporters. Future enemies can be expected to develop sophisticated media strategies to draw attention to, and assign external blame for, the suffering of their people; the possibilities available to them for distortion, manipulation, and disinformation are growing.64 Therefore, it is imperative that the U.S. military establish a solid working relationship with the media, that it integrate them into its strategy - and not keep reporters at arm's length, as if they were hostile interlopers in a private domain.



1. Charles C. Moskos and Thomas E. Ricks, "Reporting War When There Is No War: The Media and the Military in Peace and Humanitarian Operations," Cantigny Conference Series, Special Report (Chicago: Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1996), chap. 2. See also Frank A. Aukofer and William P. Lawrence, America's Team: The Odd Couple - A Report on the Relationship between the Military and the Media, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, 1995, chap. 5, p. 9; available on the World Wide Web: Sixty-four percent of military officers surveyed agreed, strongly or "somewhat," that "news media coverage of the events in Vietnam harmed the war effort."

2. Charles C. Moskos, "The Media and the Military in Peace and Humanitarian Operations," in Cantigny Conference Series, Special Report (Chicago: Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 2000), table 1, p. 12.

3. William Hammond, "The News Media and the Military," in Encyclopedia of the American Military, ed. John E. Jessup and Louise B. Ketz (New York: Scribner's, 1994), vol. 3, p. 2095.

4. Lloyd J. Matthews, ed., Newsmen and National Defense: Is Conflict Inevitable? (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1991), p. 8.

5. Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 206.

6. David Eisenhower, Eisenhower at War, 1943-1945 (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), pp. 59-60.

7. Merle Miller, Ike the Soldier: As They Knew Him (New York: G. P. Putnam,1987), p. 432.

8. Elena Agarossi, A Nation Collapses: The Italian Surrender of September 1943 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), p. 68.

9. Eisenhower, Eisenhower at War, p. 600.

10. Ambrose, Eisenhower, p. 129.

11. Marquis Childs, Eisenhower: Captive Hero (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1958), p. 79.

12. Eisenhower, Eisenhower at War, p. 219. For Patton's and Bill Mauldin's mutual antipathy - Patton was sure the "Willie and Joe" cartoonist was trying to "incite a goddamn mutiny," and Mauldin thought "the stupid bastard was crazy" - see Carlo D'Este, Patton:. A Genius for War (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 543, 694-5.

13. D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, vol. 2, 1941-1945 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), pp. 413-6, 475-6, 493-5, 661, 871.

14. Michael Linfield, Freedom under Fire: U.S. Civil Liberties in Times of War (Boston: South End Press, 1990), p. 74.

15. Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 337.

16. D. C. Hallin, We Keep America on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere (London: Routledge, 1994); C. A. Thayer, "Vietnam: A Critical Analysis," in Defence and the Media in Time of Limited War, ed. P. E. Young (London: Frank Cass, 1993), pp. 89-115; W. M. Hammond, Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1962-1968 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1988), and Public Affairs: The Military and the Media, 1968-1973 (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1996).

17. Peter Young and Peter Jesser, The Media and the Military: From the Crimea to Desert Strike (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 91-2.

18. Lynn Gorman, "The Australian and the American Media: From Korea to Vietnam," War and Society, May 2000, p. 128.

19. General John Shalikashvili, USA, quoted in Aukofer and Lawrence, chap. 3.

20. Tom Ricks, interview with author, 23 June 2000. Charles Moskos cautions that one must not take the "amateur" nature of journalists too far. Journalists are professionals "in the sense that they are trained in their vocation, have a corporate self-identity, and serve in an institution that is a cornerstone of a democratic society." Moskos, p. 47.

21. John J. Fialka, Hotel Warriors: Covering the Gulf War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1991), p. 57.

22. Aukofer and Lawrence, introduction.

23. Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000), pp. 177-80; and Ricks interview.

24. Fialka, p. 27.

25. Publisher Larry Flynt unsuccessfully sued the Defense Department, claiming that denial of access to the battlefield on Grenada was a violation of First Amendment rights.

26. Joseph Metcalf [Vice Adm., USN (Ret.)], "The Press and Grenada: 1983," in "Defence and the Media in Time of Limited War," ed. Peter Young, special issue of Small Wars and Insurgencies, December 1991, pp. 169-70.

27. For Cheney's attitude, see Aukofer and Lawrence, p. 5.

28. The press center was inadequately equipped, which delayed stories up to four days. On 30 March 1990, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued new guidance for public affairs requiring regional commanders in chief to coordinate all public affairs activities with the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, provide guidance for all public affairs activities, offer adequate communication and transport support, and ensure the implementation of all Defense public affairs policies and programs. For the up-to-date version, see Doctrine for Public Affairs in Joint Operations, Joint Publication 3-61 (Washington, D.C.: Joint Staff, 14 May 1997).

29. General Sir Peter de la Billiere, Storm Command (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 64.

30. See Fialka.

31. Carla Roberts of the Wall Street Journal, unpublished address to conference on "Partners or Partisans: Nato and the Media in Kosovo," U.S. Institute for Peace, Washington, D.C., 4 April 2000.

32. Letter to the editor, New York Times, 16 May 2000.

33. Young and Jesser, p. 281.

34. For a summary of media and military attitudes in the Gulf War, see Aukofer and Lawrence, chap. 2.

35. Commander Robert Anderson, USN, interview with author.

36. Fialka, p. 41.

37. Ibid., p. 5

38. DOD Principles for News Media Coverage of DOD Operations (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Defense Dept., April 1992).

39. Barry E. Willey [Col., USA], "The Military-Media Connection: For Better or Worse," Military Review, February 1999, pp. 4-5.

40. Ricks interview.

41. General Mike Dugan was fired as chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney in September 1990 after a reporter allowed to fly back to Washington on Dugan's plane quoted him as saying that the Gulf War would consist of a massive air campaign targeting Saddam Hussein. Two years later, a reporter took exception to a comment by the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Richard Macke, concerning an Okinawan rape case, ending the admiral's career.

42. Anderson interview.

43. Ricks interview.

44. Some believe

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