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The Pentagon is fighting--and winning--the public relations war by R S Pritchard

The Pentagon is fighting--and winning--the public relations war. (Mass Media).
USA Today (Magazine), July, 2003, by Robert S. Pritchard

AFTER YEARS OF FIGHTING with the media, the Pentagon can finally, and proudly, claim it has won the public relations war in Iraq. At least it has so far as its policy on how the media covers America's wars is concerned--for now.

Critics called it "the ultimate reality show," but what we witnessed was truly revolutionary coverage of armed conflict unprecedented in the annals of the military-media relationship. As Steve Bell, Ball State University telecommunications professor and veteran international news correspondent for ABC News, which included covering Vietnam, put it in April, 2003, "What we are living and watching is extraordinary. We have never fought wars like this."

Indeed, this news coverage was more closely akin to the way World War II was reported, although it was dramatically more radical a concept. Military censors were very much alive and well during World War II, and journalists' reports were still subjected to field press censorship. There was no censorship in Iraq. World War II correspondents were assigned to press camps, while the embedded journalists were assigned to individual units in Iraq. The manner of reporting on the individual soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman in the Iraq war was similar to that of Ernie Pyle, who became famous with his endearing and perceptive reports on the average American serviceman.

As Pyle wrote in one of his columns, "I love the infantry because they are the underdogs. They are the mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys. They have no comforts, and they even learn to live without the necessities. And in the end they are the guys that wars can't be won without." We saw these modern-day "underdogs" up-close-and-personal, beamed from the desert sands of Iraq, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some correspondents, like the late David Bloom, actually got close to Pyle's level of insight in his stories on soldiers and Marines. However, unlike World War II, we saw it all "live."

In another sense, there are similarities in the coverage of this conflict and how the Vietnam War was covered, except that reporters didn't just "hop a ride" to the war zone, cover the story, and head back to Saigon for a "cold one" at the end of the day. Film reports from Vietnam had to be flown out of the country before they could be shown a day or two later. Nonetheless, television brought the war into America's living room for the first time. Similarly, in the early days of the Iraqi conflict, we were glued to our TV screens, only now we were watching endless hours of desert rolling passively by, waiting for that instant of "breaking news." As columnist John Fund put it in his article, "Attack in the Box: The Dangers of a Televised War," in early April, "An awful lot of people have become addicted to this kind of 'Live from Baghdad' reporting."

Much as the successful enforcement of family rules and policies can be judged by the intensity of complaints from the children upon whom they are inflicted, media criticism would provide further evidence that the Pentagon's policies succeeded. This criticism has covered the gambit from the ridiculous to the sublime. Evidence of the ridiculous is Harper 's magazine publisher John MacArthur. In an interview quoted in a May I Reuters article, he said of arguably one of the most-lasting images of U.S. victory in the war--a U.S. soldier draping an American flag over the head of a statue of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad--"It was absolutely a photoop created for [Pres. George W.] Bush's re-election campaign commercials."

The sublime is evidenced in media commentary criticizing the performance of other journalists. Seemingly, it is fashionable now for journalists to dump on each other since, apparently, the Pentagon's policies have offered little to complain about. For example, as reported by Mary E. O'Leary, New Haven (Conn.) Topics editor, Michael Hirsh, a senior editor at Newsweek, told a Yale University audience that he was "fairly appalled" by television's coverage of the Iraqi war. "This has not been the media's finest hour," he said. Other naysayers maintain that the embedded reporters only churned out good news. Still others assert that they weren't allowed to say anything negative, so their stories are suspect.

As patently absurd as these claims might appear on their surface, they point out the very deep and entrenched adversarial relationship between the military and the media. This, by itself, illuminates just how difficult it has been for the Pentagon to achieve this victory. It also illustrates how fleeting that victory might be and how much work remains to be done.

To place the scope of the Pentagon's--and the public's--victory in the proper context, a brief synopsis of the military-media relationship is in order. The road has been a rocky one.

Prior to the Mexican-American War in 1846, the press operated freely as long as their views corresponded to local views. Information gathering was haphazard and usually based on other publications, letters, and government proclamations. There were no reporters in the field. Military leaders were concerned, however, that some news undermined the war effort, although they were powerless to control it.

By 1846, technology and newsgathering had improved to the point where reporters were competing daily for news. The telegraph and Pony Express offered quicker transmission of news, and correspondents routinely deployed with the military. George W. Kendall, founder of the New Orleans Picayune, was known to report from the front lines and spent time with generals. Newspaper accounts were still up to 10 days old, despite efforts like Kendall's and the arrival of the telegraph. "Camp newspapers" came into being to keep the troops informed (a prototype for later military public affairs efforts). Civilian newspapers were known to use these camp papers as a primary source.

Reporting on military conflict became quite problematic during the Civil War (1861-65). The telegraph made it possible for the first time to report military action in real time. Government and military leaders, both North and South, did all they could do to contain these reports. Pres. Abraham Lincoln, though, saw the press as a means to maintaining popular support and so did all he could to keep it unfettered. However, he, too, had to make difficult decisions with regard to press freedoms as he faced the venom of the Copperhead newspapers, which vehemently denounced the war and governmental and military leadership. "Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert...?" he would write.

The Spanish-American War in 1898 was marked by two significant factors--substantial advances in technology and "yellow journalism." Printing presses were motorized; the transatlantic cable had been laid; and telegraph lines ran the width and breadth of the nation. Meanwhile, Joseph Pulitzer's New York World was locked in mortal combat with William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Some claim the war itself was the result of machinations the two enterprises engaged in simply to drum up sales and publicity for their papers. In any event, the atmosphere lent itself to severe government restrictions, with the banning of reporters in combat zones and the closing of cable offices. Nonetheless, information continued to be "leaked" to the public, making government retaliation largely ineffective.

20th-century wars

The most-restrictive period in the military-media relationship was World War I. Initially, this was not so. The Creel Committee created by Pres. Woodrow Wilson upon America's entry into the war in April, 1917, and headed by former newspaper editor George Creel, mounted an impressive program to mobilize public opinion in support of the war effort. Creel's agency was governed by a set of regulations drawn up by the State, War, and Navy departments that placed restrictions on publication of militarily sensitive information like troop movements, sailing schedules, anti-aircraft or harbor defenses, identification of units dispatched overseas, etc. The press voluntarily abided by these regulations.

Then Congress--prompted primarily by a national patriotic fervor reaching the level of wartime hysteria, and concern over internal hostile and disloyal activites as well as the effects of propaganda--enacted the most-onerous restrictions in history with passage of the Espionage Act in 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918. The Espionage Act forbade publication of any information that might remotely be regarded as providing aid to the enemy. The Sedition Act prohibited any criticism of "the conductor actions of the United States government or its military forces, including disparaging remarks about the flag, military uniforms, [and] similar badges or symbols..." Reporters had to be credentialed as either accredited or visiting correspondents, swear an oath to write the truth, put up a $10,000 bond, and sign an agreement to submit all correspondence, except personal letters (which were censored elsewhere in the system), to the press officer or his assistant.

The high point in military-media relations--until the present--was World War II. This was probably due to the nature of the conflict and the fact that patriotism was the order of the day. The Office of War Information and the Office of Censorship were created by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. The latter issued detailed guidelines for what could not be published. Included in the list of restrictions were location, identification, and movement of units, ships, and aircraft; war production and supplies; weather forecasts and temperatures in major cities; casualties; and even locations of art treasures and archives.

Accreditation was used by the military to control access to the battlefield. Correspondents received a press pass from the War Department and a passport from the State Department and, once deployed, were assigned to "press camps" that were attached to regular military forces. All administration, communication, and briefings were handled by the press camps. Typically, these consisted of about 50 correspondents, and each moved with a field army through Western Europe.

Accredited correspondents wore officer's uniforms without rank insignia. Visitors could wear civilian garb, but had to receive special permission to travel in the war zone, were accompanied by an escort officer, and had to stick to a fixed itinerary.

Most of the engagements in the Pacific theater of operations were maritime, and Naval Chief of Operations Ernest J. King placed severe restrictions on military correspondents, frequently holding unfavorable reports until they could be paired with favorable ones. It was also far easier to control the media because correspondents were obliged to travel aboard U.S. naval vessels and relied on the ship's communications equipment to transmit reports. Eventually, the Navy got better at the release of information, but it was only after journalists, editors, and publishers complained enough about the Navy's performance that the Office of War Information stepped in to force changes.

Gen. Douglas McArthur was even more restrictive with the correspondents traveling with him. He required multiple layers of censorship and frequently pressured reporters to change the tone of their stories to show the troops--and especially him--in a more-favorable light.

Initially during the Korean War (1950-52), there were no restrictions on either media access to the war zone or content. The media covering this "police action" adopted their own guidelines and voluntarily censored themselves. Predictably, this led to security leaks and confusion. Critics were quick to point out that the negative reporting was eroding public opinion in the U.S. The Overseas Press Club eventually petitioned the Defense Department to impose censorship so the media would know what its limits were.

Thus, a system similar to that existing in World War II was instituted, with censors reviewing each story. Reports on inferior U.S. equipment, corruption in the South Korean government, and/or food shortages and panics were forbidden. McArthur once again took things even further by disallowing stories that he (or his censors by proxy) considered would be harmful to morale or cause embarrassment to the U.S., its allies, or the United Nations.

In Vietnam (1965-73), the media was free to move about the country, taking advantage of military transportation when it was available, and there was no censorship. Stories, photographs, and film were unimpeded by security review. For the media, this was the high-water mark in its relations with the military. Ultimately, though, a majority of military officers blamed the media for its "defeat" in that conflict, so Vietnam also provided the low-water mark in that relationship.

This opinion that the media lost the Vietnam War became deeply engrained in some of these officers and stayed with them as they rose through the ranks. The result was their ability to convince the Reagan Administration in 1983 to ban media access to operations in Grenada. The military was able to operate without regard to press scrutiny, which equated to success in the eyes of those senior commanders who distrusted the media. Criticism by the media was significant and vociferous, and rightly so. The good news is this tension drove both sides to find a better way to do things.

In 1984, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John W. Vessey, Jr. appointed retired Major Gen. Winant Sidle to head a panel to study the issue. Vessey invited participation from the heads of major media organizations, such as the American Newspaper Publishers Association, American Society of Newspaper Editors, National Association of Broadcasters, and Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Their report, released in August, 1984, contained eight recommendations that were intended to ensure news media coverage of American military operations "to the maximum degree possible consistent with mission security and the safety of U.S. forces." One of the key recommendations of the Sidle Report, as it became known, endorsed media pools in combat zones when other methods of providing access were not feasible. A second notable recommendation was that access to military operations would be governed, as a basic tenet, by voluntary compliance with security guidelines or ground rules established by the Defense Department. Violation of them meant exclusion from further coverage of the operation.

The first test of these new roles was the invasion of Panama in 1989. Unfortunately for the media, the Pentagon's planning and response were poorly organized, much too slow, and did not involve the local military commanders upon whose support the public affairs effort was dependent. As a result, the media were notable to cover that operation until the key phases of the conflict were over.

Improving relations

After a very critical self-evaluation, the Pentagon went back to the drawing board and, under the able and energetic guidance of Assistant Secretary of Defense Pete Williams, completely revamped its Defense Department (DOD) National Media Pool procedures. Williams got former Associated Press Pentagon reporter Fred Hoffman involved in analyzing the media aspects of Panama. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell also emphasized to his commanders the importance of including public affairs planners as part of the overall operations preparation, and this emphasis dramatically improved attitudes about the media within the military.

Against that backdrop, the Pentagon and the media worked hard for the six months prior to the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 (Operation Desert Storm) to organize the influx of nearly 1,600 journalists into the combat zone and keep them fed with information. The coverage of the Gulf War was the most comprehensive to date, but was not without its difficulties. The media complained of their treatment, particularly with two aspects of the operation--the requirement that there be a public affairs escort with them wherever they went and the military's overreliance on pooling. Once again, representatives of media organizations and the Pentagon worked together to develop the DOD Principles for News Media Coverage of DOD Operations, which was published in 1992. This simply reiterated what had previously been published, but served to reinforce the importance of the military commanders' personal involvement in planning for media coverage of future conflicts.

During the operations in Somalia (1993-94) and Haiti (1995), the lessons learned were successfully applied. The level of cooperation between the military and the media was robust, and preparation for news coverage had the full attention of everyone in the planning process from the commander on down.

The relationship continued to improve as the military services sought to find innovative ways to accommodate the media. The Air Force went so far as to embark correspondents in B-52 bombers conducting combat missions during the air war in Yugoslavia. For the first time, media deployed with special operations forces while on sensitive missions in Afghanistan.

Yet, there were still shortcomings to this inventiveness. Too few correspondents could take advantage of these opportunities, the media complained. The solution often advanced by the news organizations was free and unfettered coverage of the war zone.

So, in a move as bold as any in the history of military-media relations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Torie Clarke, and her staff prevailed on the Bush Administration, with the support of military commanders, to embed journalists with combat units, should it become necessary to take action in Iraq. They would be able to report "real time" without censorship or security review. A handful of prohibitions had to be agreed to, all commonsense, such as not providing specific locations and movements of troops, but reporters would be right in the thick of things, basically free and unfettered.

Preparation was intensive, and more than 600 journalists completed the required one-week course to familiarize them with military operations and equipment--a kind of miniboot camp. The media began to do some planning of its own, which contrasted greatly with their response to preparations for the first Gulf War.

When the first troops crossed the line of departure into Iraq, on their way to Baghdad, correspondents went with them. Some of the most-enduring images of those first hours and days were reporters like Bloom reporting live from HUMVEEs as they rolled through the Iraqi desert. Reporters were getting shot at along with their units. It wasn't just American journalists who crossed over with the troops. Reporters from around the world traveled with them. Even al-Jazerra had embedded with correspondents. Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz called it "old-fashioned war reporting, but with razzle-dazzle technology that brings it into our living rooms in real time."

Allowing this kind of war coverage was a huge risk for the Pentagon, but it has come with an equally large payoff. As independent observers, the media have corroborated the U.S. and Allied military's adherence to the Geneva Convention and the roles of war, as well as Saddam and his henchmen's lack thereof. If and when the smoking gun of evidence of chemical and biological weapons is found, the media will be there to convince the world the campaign was justified.

Perhaps the biggest payoff is what this has done for the military in terms of how it is now viewed by both the media and the public. Through the up-close-and-personal view of America's fighting men and women provided by embedded correspondents, the credibility of the individual soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, and Coast Guardsman has dramatically improved. We have been witness to the restraint they have exercised, sometimes with tragic consequences to themselves. We have seen the compassion and caring, as our troops have ignored their own comfort by giving away food and clothing and sometimes ignoring their own safety to pull an innocent victim out of the middle of the action.


However, this news coverage significantly raises the ante as well as the challenges. Offered as evidence of the most-basic challenge this kind of coverage presents is the "poignant perspective" provided by Nancy Chamberlin, mother of Marine Jay Aubin, when she talked with NBC's Tom Brokaw about her son's death in a helicopter crash in the first week of the war.

"I truly admire what all of the network news and all the new technology is doing today to bring it into our homes," she said. "But for the mothers and the wives who are out there watching, it is murder. It's heartbreak. We can't leave the television. Every tank, every helicopter, 'Is that my son?' And I just need you to be aware that this technology is--it's great--but there are moms, there are dads, there are wives out there that are suffering because of this."

Brokaw's response was: "That is so eloquent, and it's so appropriate, and we will do whatever we can to reinforce that message repeatedly.... Behind those computer-generated graphics, there is a life at risk." Clearly, the media--and the public--need to stay focused on and be sensitive to the wideranging impacts this kind of coverage can have.

The real-time nature of embedded coverage and journalistic reports and images from the battlefield occasionally outpaced the Pentagon's reporting and confirmation process, especially with regard to next of kin in the event of a death or serious injury. Reporters in the thick of things and the attendant risk of someone being injured or killed "live" raise the stakes for both the media and the military. This has the potential for devastating consequences on families and loved ones and tends to erode the Pentagon's credibility.

On March 23, 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld found himself face-to-face with this challenge as Bob Schieffer, host for CBS's "Face the Nation," decided to air breaking video made available by al-Jazeera showing American POWs as well as Iraqis displaying dead U.S. soldiers. In other cases, the military lagged behind the power curve in confirming incidents and answering questions based on those instant images. Clearly, we need to come to grips with what this immediacy means, especially in terms of impact on families of dead, injured, and captured U.S. soldiers. Further, both the military and the media need to analyze their respective reporting procedures and priorities more thoughtfully to find greater balance.

Inexperienced correspondents or those caught up in the emotion of the moment risk unwittingly divulging classified information. This is perhaps the most-serious challenge this new style of reporting creates for the media and the military. While the annals of the military-media relationship record a very small number of actual serious breaches of operational security, this risk is far too important to gloss over and must continue to be addressed.

Real-time reporting by embedded journalists risks presenting a false impression of the conflict. The ongoing phases of the war may be interpreted and presented by those without training in military strategy and planning as too lengthy, irrational, disjointed, of haphazard when, in fact, there is a clear military objective and plan for the sequencing and timing of actions.

Indeed, we only need look back at some of the early reporting to gather evidence of this concern. A Wall Street Journal editorial in March, 2003, pointed out that "the camera does lie, even unintentionally. The depressing weekend news--a firefight that caught our troops here, the American POWs there, the fragging of U.S. troops apparently by one of their own--are all real things that happened. But while the camera can record them accurately, the one thing it cannot do is provide the larger perspective. So a single ugly battle can mislead about the pace of the broader war."

Howard Kurtz commented in his March 27, 2003, online column Media Notes that, "If anything, the reports about individual units under attack may create the mistaken impression that the war effort is going to hell in a handbasket, rather than rolling inexorably toward Baghdad." On March 25, after just five days of conflict, the Los Angeles Times said, "The abrupt surge in bad news has given rise to questions: Has the U.S. battle plan come unraveled? Was it misconceived from the start?"

Columnist Charles Krauthammer put a fine edge on this point when he exclaimed, "Good grief. If there had been TV cameras not just at Normandy, but after Normandy, giving live coverage of firefights at every French village on the Allies' march to Berlin, the operation would have been judged a strategic miscalculation, if not a disaster."

The impact of embedded reporting on public opinion needs to be carefully studied. It has been said that images of Somalis dragging the bodies of dead American servicemen through the streets of Mogadishu hastened our departure from that country. ABC's Ted Koppel, in a report a few days before the Iraqi war, said, "What's totally unpredictable, of course, is the impact that all this coverage will have back at home and around the world." One pundit opined that this experiment in war coverage has the capacity to turn public opinion against the war, a la Vietnam, on "fast forward." This is more of a concern for the Pentagon and the Administration, however, for, as we've seen before, a flawed policy will not withstand much scrutiny, although it certainly demands further investigation.

A lesser, but equally destructive, consequence of this type of coverage is the potential for it to become an unintended distraction. Much of military training is based on habit patterns, and when they are broken, mistakes are made. Journalists represent potential, unintended "habit-breakers" unless they are quick to grasp the cultural imperatives of the military and its method of training.

Perhaps not a direct result of embedded correspondence as much as a shift in cultural expectations, another aspect of our national "fast forward" thinking is the concept of "victory on fast forward." The euphoria over the liberation of Baghdad lasted eight hours--literally a standard nine-to-five workday. Instant technology and instant reporting bring an expectation of instant gratification. This isn't just a problem for the Pentagon. The media have tended to largely ignore the phenomenon, claiming it is out of their hands. Now, it's time for them to be part of the solution.

Finally, a serious deficiency demonstrated in covering the Iraqi conflict with embedded journalists is the lack of "strategic" reporting that came out of the war. Almost all of the reporting was tactical, which is not surprising since the embedded correspondents had only the local unit perspective to share. The media recognize this shortcoming. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted a week into the war that, "For the last week, we have had the unprecedented experience of watching a war unfold in real time. But analysts maintain that television's ride-along reporters are too close to the story they are covering. And the unfiltered torrent of images they are sending back--NBC anchor Tom Brokaw has likened it to 'drinking from a tire hydrant'--had been overwhelming, leaving viewers confused about the course of the conflict." This leaves an opportunity for the Pentagon to add value to embedded reports, but there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking from providing perspective (some would say "spin") to providing strategic context and being aggressive from the outset in doing so. Rumsfeld was mostly reactive in his attempts to place military actions in context.

The experiment has been largely and historically successful. The Pentagon certainly should be proud of its achievements, but this isn't a time to gloat. Much needs to be done to refine the current concept of embedding journalists. The concept that accommodating the news media is vital still needs to be inculcated into aU military leaders. We also have to resolve some thorny issues, and a sea change is necessary at the Pentagon in order to provide fewer "political messages" and more strategic context to reporting from the field. Yet, the rewards for continuing to allow media to report from the front lines, in real time, are huge and well worth the investment and risks.

Robert S. Pritchard, assistant professor of journalism, Ball State University, Muncie, Ind., served 27 years in the Navy, 23 of them as a public affairs specialist, concluding his military career as Director of Public Affairs for U.S. European Command.

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