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Soldiers and Scribblers Revisited: Working with the Media

by

Richard Halloran


Originally published in Army War College's Parameters, Summer 1995

AFTER World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in his book, Crusade in Europe: "The commander in the field must never forget that it is his duty to cooperate with the heads of his government in the task of maintaining a civilian morale that will be equal to every purpose."[1] The principal agency to accomplish that task, the general said, was the press. He asserted that the commander should recognize the political leaders' mission in the war and assist them in carrying it out. Throughout his military campaigns, General Eisenhower said, "I found that correspondents habitually responded to candor, frankness, and understanding."[2]

Relations between the military forces and the press have come a long way since those thoughtful and temperate words, and most of it has been downhill. In the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, Liz Trotta, a veteran television reporter who conducted assessments of military-media relations, said in April 1990 she had concluded "that the relationship between the military and the media is at its most distant and cantakerous since the Civil War."[3] That was before the deployment of American forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, where coverage, in the early days at least, seemed balanced. In Washington, the press occasionally sniped at President Bush's policy but generally the coverage reflected the public's support for him.

Even so, the ill will between the military and the press will probably continue unabated. One reason is that the Vietnam generation has come of age in journalism, as in the military service and other sectors of American life. Newspapers and television in the United States today are run largely by people who sat out the war in Vietnam or actively opposed the American engagement. This generation is either apathetic about American soldiers and sailors or openly antagonistic to anything connected with military power. Consequently, even as many correspondents seek to play it straight, some of today's military reporting and editing borders on intellectual dishonesty.

Nevertheless, soldiers cannot avoid dealing with the scribblers of the press or the talking heads of television. To think otherwise would be naive. After a dinner with senior officers at Fort Leavenworth several years ago, a colonel challenged a correspondent: "Why should I bother with you? My job is to train troops to go to war." It was a pertinent question. On the positive side, as General Eisenhower pointed out, the press is a vital channel of communication within Clausewitz's trinity of government, the army, and the people. The scribblers squirt grease into that machinery to help make it go. On the negative side, the scribblers can also throw sand into the machinery. If military officers refuse to respond to the press, they are in effect abandoning the field to critics of the armed forces. That would serve neither the nation nor the military services. In this situation, the initiative must come mostly from military officers because the scribblers own the presses, buy ink by the 55-gallon drum, and have shown little inclination in recent years to develop professional relations with soldiers.

As Elie Abel, the TV correspondent and later dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, once wrote about the press: "Its instinctive rejection of self-improvement schemes as far back as the Hutchins Commission in 1947 leaves little room for hope of wholesale reform."[4] Thus officers should accept the press as it is, whether that seems fair or not. They should learn to work with this flawed institution and seek over time to persuade journalists to be aware of military concerns. What follows, then, is one scribbler's suggested guidance to military officers on dealing with the press and television. Most of these suggestions apply in war, contingency operations, and peace.

A final observation: The Army and Marine Corps require young officers to spend time with troops before becoming public affairs officers. That seasons them and gives them credibility. The Navy and Air Force, in contrast, make PAOs out of young officers who, while they may be fine people, lack the feel of the deck or the flight line. They are too inexperienced to do much more than pass out press releases.

Notes

1. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (Garden City., N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1948), p. 299.

2. Ibid., p. 300.

3. Liz Trotta, Seminar Transcript, Gannett Center for Media Studies, Columbia University, New York, 11 April 1990. p. 40.

4. Elie Abel, "Leaking: Who Does It? Who Benefits? At What Cost?" Twentieth Century Fund Paper (New York: Priority Press, 1987), p. 68.

5. As quoted in "Gen. Powell Says NSC Again `Moral Operation,' " The Washington Post, 28 October 1988, p. A3.

6. As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, 16 September 1990, p. M3.

7. Robert B. Sims, The Pentagon Reporters (Washington: National Defense Univ. Press, 1983). p. 150.

8. Fred S. Hoffman, "Review of the Panama Pool Deployment, December 1989," Memorandum for Correspondents, The Pentagon, Washington, D.C., 20 March 1990, p. 1.

9. Ibid., p. 3.


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