web counter Media Lies: Journalists just don't get it

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

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Journalists just don't get it

I came to this interesting article by way of 2slick because I was reading Cori Dauber. Before I tear in to this guy, I should preface my comments with this - he makes many good points as well as suggestions, and the military should heed them well.

Having said that, his argument fails because it only addresses one half of the equation and because he completely misses some fundmental points. He blames the military for the poor coverage of Iraq because their PAOs (Public Affairs Officers) are doing a lousy job of working with the press. This reminds me of the biblical axiom - first remove the beam from your own eye - only then can you remove the speck from your brother's.

He begins innocuously enough.....
The military laments that its successes in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone unnoticed, while any bad news is immediately set on by a national media intent on painting every U.S. commitment as a quagmire. This might be true, but the military is not without responsibility for this state of affairs.
...but soon descends into blame fixing.
Many believe national policy is set by the media intent on painting every U.S. military commitment as an unwinnable quagmire.

They are right.
On a side note, it's nice to see someone in the media finally unequivocally admit this.
But who is responsible for this state of affairs? While it is easy to blame the media for failing to get the true story or to accuse journalists of a liberal bias against military operations, this fails to identify the true culprit. The reason the military is losing the war in the media is because it has almost totally failed to engage, and where it has engaged, it has been with a mind-boggling degree of ineptitude. It is a strange circumstance indeed when virtually every senior officer agrees that the media can make or break national policy, but no more than a handful can name the top military journalist for The Washington Post, The New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal. Thousands of officers who spend countless hours learning every facet of their profession do not spend one iota of their time understanding or learning to engage with a strategic force that can make or break their best efforts.
The corollary, of course, is how many of the military journalists from the afore-mentioned outlets can name more than a handful of generals other than Myers and Abizaid, and how many have they actually interviewed?

More to the point, why should the military officers have to learn these fellows names? If the journalists were doing their jobs wouldn't they be recognizable by all concerned? This smacks of an attitude of privilege - I shouldn't have to get my hands dirty doing the work of jounalism to get the story - you should grant me access and give it to me. I am as equally certain that the press has failed in its duties as I am that this fellow is right in saying that the military needs to improve. He is right. He is also ignoring the dark secret in the closet.

Then he makes this incredible statement (emphasis mine.)
The military is paying a high and continuing price for its inability to engage the media. There have been 30 years of studies, conferences, and meetings since Vietnam dealing with just this topic, and still the magic formula eludes the military. As the only embedded journalist in Iraq who still was carrying a military ID card (Army Reserve), I feel uniquely placed to comment on the military-media relationship. I served on active duty for more than a dozen years and came to journalism late. However, my stint in journalism focused on military affairs, which allowed me to develop a clear picture of the frustrations most journalists encounter when dealing with the military. Many readers will counter: But what about the frustrations of the military with the media? Who cares? That is like blaming enemy action for the failure of a brilliant plan. The media will always get a story out; it is the military's responsibility to make sure that story is informed and correct. It is useless for officers to scream in frustration that the media got a story wrong, particularly if they did nothing to help journalists get it right.
What? I mean, WHAT!!!! It's the military's responsibility to get the story right? What Orwellian world do you live in? You may be former military, my friend, but you have definitely gone over to the dark side.

Journalism 101. It is your job to get the story right. If you can't do that, drop out of the profession now. You are not worthy. Is it any wonder that journalists are held in such low esteem these days? They think taking notes at a press conference or getting quotes from a politician passes for "getting the story". They can't be bothered with getting on the phone and actually interviewing people, or, God forbid, actually going to where the action is and finding out what's really happening.

There's more (again, emphasis mine.)
As a journalist, when given an assignment, I will not fail. To a journalist, an assignment is the same as a mission order. If the people in the know will not tell me, I will go to their soldiers. If that does not work, I will go to the families of the soldiers and get the versions of the story their sons and daughters have sent them by e-mail. Then I will write the story based on what I was able to get from whatever source was available. All the after-the-fact howling in the world from those who think I got the story all wrong will have no effect. Even if I wanted to go back and fix it, I probably would not bother. The news cycle has moved on, and I have moved on with it.

Anyone who thinks a journalist is ethically bound to go back and fix wrong information or impressions is fooling himself. Even current military stories are competing for space against J-Lo's latest wedding. Editors are not giving up space to rehash the past-historical record be damned. Besides, too many corrections will begin to make it look like I could not get the right story in the first place, and what compelling reason is there to make myself look incompetent?
So, let me get this straight. As a journalist, I have no responsibility for telling the truth or even for correcting errors when they are exposed? And to think that getting the story right to begin with would solve all of this!

We are truly in a sad state in journalism in this country. Watch him admit it.
Just after the sandstorm-enforced halt in the assault on Baghdad, Time sent me the copy for that week's cover story entitled "Why Are We Losing" and asked me to find comments to feed into the story.

That day I saw Colonel David Perkins of the 3rd Infantry Division and talked to many of his officers. Their reaction to the story was, "Tomorrow we laager up to refuel and rearm. The next day we move out to hit the Medina Division. It's beat up, facing the wrong way, and does not know we're coming. The day after that we ride onto Baghdad International Airport." After a few calculations, I figured out Time was going to declare the war lost on the same day we entered Baghdad. This was not good.

I sent a note to Time telling them they were about to look very foolish. Unfortunately, I was alone in my estimation of the situation. All of the talking heads on TV were shouting about disaster. However, expert talking-head opinions on the threat Saddam's paramilitaries were posing to the 3rd's supply line were not in line with the reality I was witnessing. Battlefield commanders in Iraq, rather then being alarmed at attacks on the supply lines, were thankful, "Isn't it nice of them to come out of hiding in the cities and attack across open desert to be slaughtered." In addition to the talking heads, most of my fellow embeds were echoing the disaster sentiment. When you are living in the dirt with an infantry platoon, it is easy to miss the progress that becomes visible when you get the big picture at a brigade headquarters or higher. After a six-hour meeting, the compromise at Time was to rename the story "What Will It Take to Win."

Newsweek went with the cover story "Quagmire" in big red letters, which allowed Time to claim a major journalistic coup by not looking as foolish as Newsweek.
I'll just ask him one question. Why should the military bother getting to know journalists and trying to get the truth out when their input will be ignored by their outlets anyway? What difference does it make if the journalist has no agenda if the outlet he works for does?

This is a perhaps startling revelation if you haven't already become aware of the corruption of journalism. The writer admits that the facts never get in the way of the story! I think the military should carefully consider his suggestions, especially the "reverse embed" idea, but without a corresponding correction from the media, not much progress will be made.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

UPDATE: More at Chapomatic.