School of Media and Communication

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Pentagon & Press: Striking a Balance by Victoria Clarke

Pentagon and Press


The preamble to the Constitution says one of its purposes is to "provide for the common defense." Its First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. Those goals are not contradictory, but there are times - especially times of war - when they tug in opposite directions.

This is an instructive point for evaluating whether journalists have enjoyed sufficient access to the war on terrorism. The question is not whether either the media or the military are completely satisfied. Instead, the issue is whether the healthy yet balanced tension that should exist between those institutions in a free society has been achieved.

Now - with September 11 a year old in our memories but still vivid in our national consciousness - is the time to consider those questions.

When it comes to the Department of Defense's service to the media, we can do better.

The U.S. is a different country from what it was a year ago, and Afghanistan today is a free nation on a path to stability. Seventy nations are now supporting our war on terrorism, which has debilitated al Qaeda and saved countless lives.

And we have facilitated broad-ranging media access to the war as well. Whether we have struck the right balance between the constitutional dictates to provide for the common defense and secure freedom of the press is a question better answered in history's more objective hindsight. But this much is clear:

Despite our divergent missions - the military's paramount duty to protect its troops, and the media's principal charge to report as much as possible - both are striving to understand each other's needs while navigating the new and highly challenging environment of the first war of the Information Age.

Operation Enduring Freedom provided the Department of Defense with real-time instruction in 21st century war fighting. The same could be said of our relationship with the news media: We're learning lessons all the time. Along the way, Defense has successfully facilitated broad access to military operations, made some mistakes and, throughout the process, learned important lessons that will be helpful in guiding the military-media relationship in the future.

Since September 11, the department has responded to more than 42,000 media inquiries, hosted more than 5,000 media visits to military facilities, given more than 1,500 interviews, and conducted more than 225 press briefings.

On the first night of air strikes, thirty-nine journalists from twenty-six news organizations were aboard U.S. Navy ships involved in the operation. Another 100 were on the flight line when C-17's returned from the first drops of humanitarian rations. Journalists have accompanied deployed troops more than 1,400 times.

We have provided unprecedented access to the top civilian and uniformed leaders of the military. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has participated personally in more than 100 press briefings and availabilities - dozens of them with General Richard Myers, of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and given more than seventy press interviews. General Tommy Franks, commander of Enduring Freedom, has participated in live briefings and teleconferences with the media. Soon after September 11, we began conducting regular conversations with bureau chiefs to ensure that their concerns were heard.

Our record, to be sure, is also punctuated by occasional mistakes, both of judgment and in the accuracy of information we have provided. Troops on the scene initially denied journalists access to friendly-fire casualties in Kandahar, for example. We corrected the mistake and clarified procedures for use in the future.

One clear lesson of this first war of the Information Age is that speed and accuracy are not always compatible goals. In our haste to provide information quickly, we have not always provided it accurately.

This balance between speed and accuracy has arisen on other occasions in Enduring Freedom, and it is likely to be a permanent dynamic in coverage of future wars. Our task is to strive for equilibrium - information that is as accurate as possible and as quick as possible - while being willing to correct mistakes quickly when we make them.

Flexibility will be as important in facilitating media coverage of wars as it is in fighting them. We must continue to look for opportunities to assure media access to combat forces and, when necessary, create smaller, regional media pools.

Other lessons doubtless remain ahead. Perhaps the most important is that the tension between the military and the media provoked by the issue of media access to the war is healthy in a free society. Our challenge is to fine-tune that balance, not to resolve it altogether.

Defense's primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of our troops and the success of their missions - a goal journalists have almost universally respected. In the process of fulfilling that duty, we have, arguably, erred frequently on the side of caution. And journalists have - rightly - pushed for more access tothe war than the department has thought it appropriate to give them.

Smart people will invest considerable thought in exploring whether the best balance has been struck between the two. But the goal of that process should be fine-tuning the military-media relationship, not erasing any trace of conflict between the two.

Victoria Clarke is assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Earlier, she held posts with the Hill and Knowlton public relations firm, Bozelle Eskew Advertising, and the National Cable Television Association.In 1992 she was press secretary for President George Bush's re-election campaign. Previously, she was press secretary to Senator John McCain.She is a 1982 graduate of George Washington University.

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