Monday, March 07, 2005

The fog of war: Why I don't trust the media, part 2.

(Part one is more personal, and is here.)

You might want to go get a cup of coffee - this is going to be a fairly long one. I've seen several news stories about the war lately, and I've read a fairly long thread about the changing role and influence of journalists in the political realm. In short, the initial post expressed concern that the Bush White House is de-legitimizing the press, and, in the comments that followed, a countervailing argument emerged that the traditional political press is delegitimizing itself by no longer representing the interests of the public. I also read Major Mike's post, "Military Distrust of the MSM" about the military's contempt and distaste for the mainstream media, and I'd have to say that he's dead on. That's led me to think about the relationship between the "deligitimization" of the mainstream media in the political realm, and what I think is a similiar situation in the relationship between the press and the military. Here, even though I think there are some similarities between the political relationship of the press and the government and the relationship of press and military, I'm going to draw a sharp distinction between the political context of a given war, and the conduct of war by the US military in general - even if that's a distinction far more likely to be recognized by the military than the media. Why does the typical serviceman feel such contempt and distrust for the press as an institution? How did we come to this state of affairs? I plan to discuss that question, and, along the way, I'll touch on a few recent and not so recent stories to illustrate some of why I think the gulf between journalist and soldiers has become impassable in the 21st century. One disclaimer - I'm addressing trends and majorities here - I don't think that the press (or for that matter, "the military") is as monolithic as they appear here.

And I don't think that its a simple as the "pro-journalism" theory that the military prefers to be able to cover up its "war crimes" without the just and fair light of journalism shining on them - and that military members dislike the MSM because journalists hold the military accountable for its actions. Of course, dislike of negative publicity or the risk of negative publicity is part of it- nobody likes to have their every action examined under a microscope, especially by people who seem to be looking for ways to cast those actions in the most negative light possible. And I think that there is some resentment from many service men about the self appointed role modern journalists seem to play as arbiters of the morality of war. Understand, I'm not taking refuge in the argument that people who haven't shouldered a soldier's burden can't really understand a soldier's actions - although I think there's some truth to that. I am saying that the resentment of journalists taking on the role of moral arbiter exists. But neither do I think that the "pro-military" position that journalists are all aligned in looking for ways to undermine US foreign policy and the US military holds up - although I think that the perception that the majority of journalists have political views that are fundamentally opposed to US interests, and that their choice of stories and of tone tend to reflect that bias, does offer at least a partial explanation for the distrust the typical service member feels towards the press. But there are a number of factors - some outside the control of journalists, and some very much their responsibility - that cause people in the military to distrust and fear the inevitable distortions of truth that happen when the media reports on the conduct and consequences of war. Some of these factors include:

A shift in cultural perspective among mainstream journalists
Eason Jordan discussed CNNs "international" orientation and perspective in a TBS interview several years ago:

We certainly tailor our programming for the marketplace; most of CNN's consumers live outside the United States. A great deal of our programming originates from outside the United States. Many of our journalists come from outside the United States. The reality is that we are a US-based news channel, but that doesn't mean we're American in perspective with our international service. In fact the person who oversees all our international outlets is not an American at all, he's British, and we hired him from the BBC several years ago. There are more than fifty nationalities of journalists who work at CNN International producing that service. If we were to move CNN's base to Egypt maybe they'd say we're Egyptian—you have to be based somewhere. It's the people who produce the channel and the people who provide the reporting who are really responsible for it, and those are people from all over the world, the very best journalists and program makers we can find. No matter what CNN International does, as long as CNN's headquarters is in the United States people are going to say, well, it's an American service. But the reality is that it's an international service based in the United States, and we don't make any apologies about that.

In large part, it seems that the current generation of journalists see themselves as supra-nationalists. Having slipped the surly bonds of patriotism (which they would refer to as "nationalism") and having overcome classical liberal morality that would see the US as a force for good in the world, journalists feel themselves accountable only to "getting the story" and to what they would consider an internationalist point of view. Since military service is one of the ultimate expressions of patriotism, and the US military in particular views itself as moral force - fighting the good fight and obeying the laws of warfare even when their opponents do not - its little wonder that the two institutions fail to see eye to eye.

But I think that the end of patriotism in journalism cuts deeper than just misunderstandings. Kevin Sites, the journalist who filmed the shooting of an injured insurgent by a Marine in a mosque in Fallujah, covered his reasons for going with the story in a post on MSNBC. While I discuss that incident in more detail below, I think that its telling that not once in his decision making process did he ask if the story was good for the war effort. Maybe, given the new morality in journalism, there's no reason that he should have. But not at least thinking about that aspect of the story indicates a very different cultural view than say, Edward R. Murrow or Ernie Pyle. Mr. Sites claims that he's not anti-war or anti-American. Maybe not, but the culture that he moves in, and the implicit moral worldview he has as part of that culture, arguably are.

As an extreme example, Mike Wallace, in a famous PBS discussion, once admitted that he would not take action to prevent the death of US soldiers if it got in the way of a story. (Peter Jennings at least had the grace to struggle with the question.) That kind of disconnect between the patriotism and morality of the soldier and the patriotism and morality of the journalist, should and does invite the contempt of the soldier for the reporter.

Lack of understanding of military matters by reporters who cover the military
Here, I'm not talking about sympathy, or a common world-view between reporters and soldiers - I'm talking about the fundamental lack of understanding of how military weapons, planning, operations and members work. Typical reporters covering the military in Iraq and Afghanistan may have a lot of experience covering bloody little third world adventures that they call wars, but they seem to be clueless about how western militaries operate. My impression is that dealing with most reporters is like a soldier talking to a "military beat" reporter is like a Ford engineer finding a senior editor at an automotive magazine who doesn't know the difference between an automatic and a manual transmission. Given the cultural divide discussed above, its hard to believe that ignorance of military matters isn't a deliberate decision for the war journalist, an expression of his disdain for the military culture.

Let's look at the most obvious unasked question out of the Abu Gharib prison mess - where was the chain of command? And I'm not talking about the BG who ran the prison and who started whining about how she was being "scapegoated" when the story came out - although the primary tenet of command is that the commander is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen is his command. But the highest ranking soldier to be charged or discussed in the press so far is a junior NCO, and all the rest are junior enlisted soldiers - where was the immediate supervision? Where were the senior NCOs and junior officers who should have been enforcing standards and keeping control of their men? Where were SFC Jones and CPT Smith in all this? And that's the question that should have been asked, whether you believe (as I do,for a number of technical and practical reasons, not just moral ones) that what happened at Abu Gharib was an abberation, or whether you think that PFC England was emailing her amateur dominatrix photos to the SecDef every night.

Either way, the immediate chain of command is the dog that didn't bark in the night. But nobody with enough voice in the mainstream media knew enough to raise it as far as I can tell. That kind of ignorance of the military means that reporters simply can't provide the context around their coverage of military operations, and that increases the problems the next issue causes:

Simple cluelessness and willful ignorance in the journalist's audience
One of the things that I think works to the detriment of military journalism, but is largely outside of their control, is the lack of understanding of the realities of combat that exists in the general public. That lack of understanding is the result of their lack of experience with military matters. Maybe it's partly the fault of the military, but the public really doesn't get how much influence Murphy's Law and the fog of war have on the outcome of combat. I think that this is most clearly demonstrated by the recent media coverage of the rescue of the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena. The facts about the incident haven't emerged yet, but I can apply Occam's razor to my own experience with war and come up with what the most likely interpretation is:

The Italian agent had just grabbed the hostage, or picked her up after negotiating (read bargaining) for her release. He's either worried about the terrorist's grabbing her back, or deciding to take her back after releasing her, and he doesn't trust the Iraqis in the area - probably, given where they were, many of whom were at least passive supporters of the insurgency - so he's going like the hammers of hell, making for a safe area when he sees a roadblock ahead. He probably didn't coordinate with US forces in the area ahead of time, either because he was acting on time sensitive intel and didn't have time, or because of opsec concerns - or he did and the unit conducting the roadblock didn't get the word. He had a limited time (probably a matter of seconds) to figure out that the roadblock was US, and not the bad guys, and he didn't make it. The US forces saw a car speeding towards them and took the shot. Tragic, but not wrong.

That may not be the correct explanation, but it's the simplest explanation and should be the default one, at least until somebody comes up with something to contradict it. That's a very unsatisfying outcome for people who expect war to be like the movies (or at least a morality play), with a clear delivery of good outcomes for the good guys and bad outcomes for the bad guys. People don't want to hear that sometimes things just go wrong, and that while there may be lessons to be learned, there's nobody at fault. Sometimes in combat, the right decision at the time can lead to tragic results. If it's a car bomber, or a wounded insurgent playing possum, the soldier's a hero. Otherwise he's the instrument of a terrible tragedy - but either way, he did the right thing and made the right decision under terrible stress.

Sometimes, simple cluelessness on the part of the audience makes the transition into willful ignorance. People who want to politicize the conduct of the war, to use the happenings in the war to make some point about the policies that led to the war, will I think, look for underlying motives or plans where none exist - thus, a recent thread on a fairly right wing site that supports the war in Iraq included speculation that the Italians deliberately tried to run the roadblock to create political issues for the Bush administration. Other left-wing sites include discussions about the "deliberate execution" of a wounded insurgent in a mosque in Iraq. Right now, the Italians are going on and on about the latest victim of an absurd war." It's this mindset that leads to the next issue:

Anything can be politicized, and, thanks to the cultural shift among journalists, probably will be
In World War II, a reprehensible incident occured when George Patton slapped a soldier suffering from battle fatigue. Now, most people thought it was wrong then, and - thanks to people like Grossman - we know it was wrong now. But it did have the potential to change the course of the war for the worse. And we never will know the opportunity cost - in lives and potential gains - that we incurred in relieving perhaps the best large armoured force commander of the war, on either side, at such a critical point. Should Patton have been punished - yes. Relieving him was a mistake, though, but one made inevitable by the storm of publicity he incurred.

Now, thanks to increased coverage driven by more competition and better communication, multiply that incident by a thousand or more, and change the equation further - in World War II, US reporters largely felt a responsibility to support the war effort. (As I discussed earlier, I believe that that no longer holds true.) Looking back at the recent Italian hostage story, Giuliana Sgrena, who works for the communist newspaper Il Manifesto, has gone from sobbing for her life and pleading with the US and Italian governments to help her on a videotape a month ago, to announcing now that her captors "never treated me badly." And today's CNN post offers her an entirely uncritical forum to advance her anti-US, anti-war agenda, describing the killing of Nicola Calipari, the Italian agent who was with her in the car as an "assassination", and claiming that "the Americans may have targeted her on purpose because the U.S. opposed negotiating with kidnappers."

Technology and competition among news agencies has led to much greater access to combat operations than ever before. The more opportunities that there are to take things out of context, to interpret military conduct in terms of opposition to policy, the more it will happen. Now, I'm not arguing that conduct that violates the law of land warfare or the norms of human decency that exist even in war shouldn't be exposed and punished. I am arguing that journalists who are ideologically driven to believe - or who provide fodder to those who are so driven to believe - that the US military doesn't largely do the right thing in war, or that any action by the military in war is prima facia an immoral, illegal act, will seek out any opportunity to distort reality to convince the public that the US military is engaged in illegal or immoral acts as a matter of policy. Journalists opposed to military action or to US policy have, because of greater access and better communications, far greater opportunity for their mischief than they did previously. Sometimes, though, distortions of truth don't happen solely for ideological reasons (although there may be ideological undertones), but because of the emergence of:

"Gotcha journalism"
My own experience with this involves the BBC rather than a US journalist, but I don't have any sense that US reporters behave any differently. One morning, we got the word from our gate guards that their was "an American", but not a soldier, at the gate to see us. We found this to be a bit startling - so far, none of our countrymen had dropped our cozy little nest in southeast Afghanistan to chat or have a cup of coffee or whatnot. When we got out to the gate, we found, not an American, but a British reporter with entourage. He seemed quite nice and wanted to do a story on the emergence of the Afghan National Army (ANA). We helped him arrange a few interviews with the Afghans and thought that was the end of it. He wanted to get a few of us to talk to him as long as he was there, but I suspect that it was wishful thinking on his part - he knew that interviewing an A-Team, or getting inside to get pictures of our equipment or compound without prior coordination was a non-starter. Later, we heard from one of the interviewees - an officer in the ANA who spoke some English but who had done the interview through an interpreter - that our new reporter friend had been quite keen on getting the Afghans to make an anti-American statement. He asked a number of leading questions along the lines of "Does it bother you when the Americans treat you like second-class soldiers?" The Afghans were pissed about it, but handled the situation professionally, which made me feel pretty good about our rapport with them. Later, we heard from one of our friends in the local police that the reporter had done the same thing - gone by the police station to talk to the police chief (who was also the acting "sub-governor" of the local area.) In that case, the police chief threw the reporter out of his office. (And, one of the local cops stole a pretty nice digital audio recorder from him - he told us later it was in retribution for the disrespect the reporter was showing his American friends, although I suspect he didn't mind having a pretty nice recorder. So, if any of you know a BBC reporter who's missing one, tell him I don't have it but I know who does.)

More recently, and more seriously, a Marine shot and killed an unarmed, wounded man in a mosque. And, if all the information you have on the incident comes from mainstream "journalists", that's probably all you know. Try this story instead. Insurgents had turned a mosque into a weapons depot and strongpoint. A team of Marines went in to secure the mosque, and, after heavy fighting that included engaging the mosque with tank fire, finally secured the mosque and removed the insurgent's weapons. When they withdrew, they left behind five wounded insurgents. They intended to go back and get them, but the situation was fluid, and that never happened. The next day, a different group of Marines took fire from the mosque, and again had to go and secure it. When the entered the mosque, they saw what appeared to be five dead bodies - the only person who knew differently was the embedded reporter, Kevin Sites, who had made the entry with the other Marines the day before, and knew that these were the wounded from the previous battle. These marines didn't know where the bodies came from or what they were doing there, but they did know that one of the insurgent's tactics was to feign death or surrender and then attack. One of the Marines saw movement from the body. "He's faking being dead." Another marine took the shot and killed the threat. After that, the other two remaining wounded gestured to the Marines and made it clear that they were alive and not feigning death. A Navy corpsman with the Marine patrol then provided medical aid for the remaining wounded.

All that boiled down to 15 seconds of video of the Marine taking the shot - because it was the most dramatic moment? Probably, but I think that there's also a large element of taking the part that makes the subject look the worst, and presenting it without explanation and without context. Why bother with that - the political partisans with whom the journalist is in sympathy will fill in whatever context they like. Kevin Sites was sufficiently concerned about the appearance of gotcha journalism to issue, not an apology, but certainly an apologia. He claims he was "haunted" by not being able to explain the process, and explicitly disavows "gotcha" journalism. However, his defense doesn't ring true - he discusses presenting "mitigating" factors on behalf of the Marine, as opposed to explaining the justification for the action in the heat of combat. He claims that he was not supporting a left-wing or right wing agenda, and justifies that claim by implying that the Marine was guilty of an immoral act but then covering the "other side" of the story by discussing "mitigation"- despite the fact that he notes early on in his comments that he was:

"well aware from many years as a war reporter that there have been times, especially in this conflict, when dead and wounded insurgents have been booby-trapped, even supposedly including an incident that happened just a block away from the mosque in which one Marine was killed and five others wounded."

But then later in his article he cites the rules of engagement requiring hostile intent, and says "Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all." Even in his article written 9 days after the incident - and long after the damage was done in terms of the video - he never notes the context, that in that situation, feigning death - with the known insurgent tactic of booby-trapping the wounded - could by itself be a hostile act, and that approaching the man to search him could have led to the death of the Marine doing the searching when the boobytrap went off.

Instead, a complicated story covering two days boils down to 15 seconds:

"However, the Marine could legitimately believe the man poses some kind of danger. Maybe he's going to cover him while another Marine searches for weapons. Instead, he pulls the trigger."

And, to be fair, the coverage could be from his network may have been more balanced than his article implies. But Mr. Sites goes on to say:

"I knew NBC would be responsible with the footage. But there were complications. We were part of a video "pool" in Fallujah, and that obligated us to share all of our footage with other networks. I had no idea how our other "pool" partners might use the footage."

I find that to be disingenious in the extreme. Mr. Sites, a journalism with years of experience, had to have had a very good idea how the "other pool partners" would use the video - in exactly the way they did use it, replaying 15 seconds over and over without context, without explanation. Gotcha, USMC! That sort of behavior from the press may be amusing when the intent is to catch the President saying "Fuck" on tape, but it is reprehensible when it is directed at men making good faith, immediate, life or death decisions. It may increase ratings,and it may have improved Mr. Sites's standing among his fellow journalists, but it provides fodder for those who want to draw moral equivalences between the two sides ("They may target civilians, employ suicide bombers, and use mosques as firing points, but, look, we shoot unarmed men. Both sides are equally immoral") and rightly invites contempt for for the press from the military.

Equally troubling, in this case, is the misleading effect the video clip has lifted out of context and endlessly repeated. Dowdification (after Maureen Dowd) is the act of lifting quotes out of context to impute a different (usually straw-man) position to a public figure than the one he actually takes. Lifting the video out of context and playing it over and over is equally misleading and even more compelling. Did it happen? Yes. Is it the truth? I would argue that, in any way that matters - except for public reaction - no. And that leads to my last point:

Immediacy is not accuracy
It's been observed that, if there had been cameramen attached to the WWII Italian campaign, we would never have won the war. Daily horrific images would have conveyed to the American public that we were losing the war, and calls for negotiation or withdrawl would have become overwhelming. One can draw military parallels between the Bulge in WWII and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam - both of them were a last-ditch military act of desperation on the part of the enemy, and both were overwhelmingly defeated after intense fighting. The difference was Walter Cronkite, who's on-camera reaction is widely viewed as a turning point in the public's support of the war. Or, to be fair, the difference was in the immediacy of the images that came out of Tet, and it the mainstream press's inability to understand or put those images in context.

One way to define pornography is that it appeals to the prurient interest, and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. I would argue that combat video, without context, without background, without information is akin to pornography in that sense. Carnage, destruction and death will always be intensely disturbing - they disturb the people who are there, too. But until the mainstream press figures out how to use the immediacy of video and real-time communications without appealing to the prurient interest and the worst political impulses of the public, they are providing immediacy at the cost of accuracy.

In conclusion, it seems that a number of issues have emerged that create the divide between the military and the press. Some of those were created by changes in technology, but perhaps more fundamentally, many have been created by the changes in the worldview and the culture of the press itself. While I think that technology issues could be overcome, I'm not so sure about the cultural divide between the soldier's view of the world and the reporters. Maybe that's a good thing, and maybe it's not, but I think that journalists fundamentally need to look to themselves to ask where they go with this now. And the American public needs to look to the mainstream media and ask it that's who we want telling us about our military.


Blogger Watch 'n Wait said...

Congratulations on a well written argument/explanation of the relationship between the military and the media as you see and have experienced it. One of the most lucid I've seen in a long time. It was a pleasure to read.
And thanks too for visiting my blog and giving me info on the link and sitemeter problem. In exchange, allow me to steer you to a book that will make you laugh. Ed Fitzgerald was one of the original Green Berets. Volunteered for that first group with zero idea of what he was getting into. He's written a novel (protect the innocent) entitled, "Bank's Bandits" (see Hands down, one of the most hilarious books I've ever read. Enjoy..and stay safe.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Major Mike said...

SFAG, nicley done...very level headed, very clear, very balanced...which is why it will be draw fire. Sad. Thanks for the plug, I'm linking to this.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

That was an outstanding piece. Very nice.

2:21 AM  
Blogger Special Forces Alpha Geek said...

Major Mike,
I don't think that the article is placed to draw fire - since my readership consists of friends, family and people who stumble in here (I'd guess typically through miblogs or people who google on +blog +special forces or the like.) In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of my current readership has been generated in the last few days through the links on your site.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of hits in the sitemeter, but I doubt that there's enough of an audience out there to do much shootin'

Thanks, all, for the feedback, though. I appreciate it.

3:17 AM  
Blogger mdmhvonpa said...

SFAG; Actually, I filtered in through Toni's (above) site. I posted this comment there, but it should be here:
wow .. quite a bit here. As I read through this, all I could think was 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country'. Then the thought crossed my mind that many of these journalists stood in American schools and repeated the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Gives you a measure of their character.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. Very well written. Where were all the smart people during my war?
2. The comment about "middle management" is exactly what I and everybody I know said about the prison affair -I even castigated the BGEN for her whining. You nailed that, totally.
3. Even when the press is on our side (WWII) they don't get military operations or war right. Even comparing Hollywood films to actual combat footage -sometimes Hollywood caused that nasty little knot in my stomach and the documentaries left me untouched (thank god). Go figure.
4. What you, the major, maybe me, can do is read in closer to the reality when shit happens. And shit happens said it all back then; as best I can tell, it does still.
5. Don't think you can expect too much from outsiders, no matter whose side they are on. Read press.
6. I fear the parties inside the beltway far more than the press, again, no matter whose side they think they are on.
Thanks for your fine writing, V/R JW

8:46 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

SF Geek,

A well thought out piece on the current status of our military and our media.

A sad fact I'm only now realizing is that the media is not "American" first. Very sad and shocking to me.

What I think blogs like your's,, greyhawk, Major Mike and others bring is "context" to situations such as those in the mosque in Fallujah

If it hadn't have been for the blogosphere ferreting out the "context", I don't think the media would have dropped the story so quickly. Of course, they wouldn't spend their precious airtime to tell you the whole truth, context and then allow you to make up your mind.

I also believe it is thanks to you and other milbloggers especially, that that young Marine will not be charged for his actions, which were completely understandable and correct.

I can only hope the same context is brought to the public's attention regarding the Sgrena shooting. You guys have been doing a great job with that story, too....

There's a new dynamic to today's events and the reporting of them. The media doesn't like it. You guys are changing the way the public gets its information and the quality, context and depth of information. I find it is for the better.

Perhaps we can expect the media to begin to objectively provide media, including all the context and other pertinent facts necessary to the story.

Great blog, I appreciate your writing, insight and I thank you for your service.

1:39 PM  
Blogger MuppetLord said...

An interesting and well written piece. It is a wonder as to where the good reporters appear to have gone.

I came across this through The Special Constable. Looks interesting, and it's one to link to.

As watch 'n wait said, stay safe.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Jakob Lang said...

Hey sf alpha geek,

thanx for the coffee tip. Just got me one from the kitchen, now looking forward to reading your post.

greetings from Germany

Jakob Lang

10:31 AM  

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