The military often manipulates the mainstream media, by restricting or managing what information is presented and hence what the public are told. For them it is paramount to control the media. This can involve all manner of activities, from organizing media sessions and daily press briefings, or through providing managed access to war zones, to even planting stories. This has happened throughout the 20th century. Over time then, the way that the media covers conflicts degrades in quality, critique and objectiveness.
"Information is the currency of victory" an August 1996 U.S. Army field manual. From a military's perspective, information warfare is another front on which a battle must be fought. However, as well as needing to deceive adversaries, in order to maintain public support, information to their own public must no doubt be managed as well. That makes sense from a military perspective. Sometimes the public can be willing to sacrifice detailed knowledge. But that can also lead to unaccountability and when information that is presented has been managed such, propaganda is often the result. Beelman also describes how this Information Operations is used to manage information:
For reporters covering this war [on terrorism], the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield-a long and mostly losing struggle in the past-but in discerning between information and disinformation. That is made all the more difficult by a 24-hour news cycle, advanced technology, and the military's growing fondness for a discipline it calls "Information Operations." IO, as it is known, groups together information functions ranging from public affairs (PA, the military spokespersons corps) to military deception and psychological operations, or PSYOP. What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.
- Maud S. Beelman, The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism, Coverage of Terrorism Women and Journalism: International Perspectives, from Nieman Reports Magazine, Winter 2001, Vol. 55, No.4, p.16. (from The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University)
Danny Schechter, also referring to the article above by Beelman, describes Information Operations more bluntly as being "a way of obscuring and sanitizing that negative-sounding term 'propaganda' so that our 'information warriors' can do their thing with a minimum of public attention as they seek to engineer friendly write ups and cumulative impact." This, he points out, can be accomplished via several strategies:
· Overloading the Media
o This can be done by providing too much information!
o Schechter gives an example of the Kosovo War, where "briefers at NATO's headquarters in Belgium boasted that this was the key to information control. 'They would gorge the media with information,' Beelman writes, quoting one as saying, 'When you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story.'"
· Ideological Appeals
o A common way to do this is to appeal to patriotism and safeguarding the often unarticulated "national interest"
o Schechter describes, how Condaleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials persuaded the networks to kill bin Laden videos and other Al-Jazeera work during the initial months after the September 11 2001 tragedy. This is nothing new, however, as he points out; "All administrations try to seduce and co-opt the media." (and of course, this happens all around the world.)
o Schechter describes the ramifications: "It is this ideological conformity and world view that makes it relatively easy for a well-oiled and sophisticated IO propaganda machine to keep the U.S. media in line, with the avid cooperation of the corporate sector, which owns and controls most media outlets. Some of those companies, such as NBC parent General Electric, have long been a core component of that nexus of shared interests that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. As Noam Chomsky and others have argued, that complex has expanded into a military, industrial and MEDIA complex, in which IO is but one refinement."
· Spinning Information
o Press briefings by military institutions such as NATO, Pentagon etc, where journalist's questions are answered and information is presented is of course a form of spin. It is the spin that the military will put on it.
o Journalists no doubt expect this, but true to many media propaganda models, seldom are such "official" statements verified and followed up on, especially if from one's own nation, with whom there is often a lot of trust. A result of this is propaganda and spin becoming the official version.
· Withholding Information
o Of course, the military can often hide behind this one!
o Sometimes from a military operational perspective it can be understood why they don't want to give much (or any) real details. Looked in isolation from other issues, this seems like an understandable and acceptable military strategy.
o Yet, when combined with the other propaganda strategies, it is another way to withhold information.
· Co-Option And Collusion
o As Danny Schechter asks on this issue, "why do we in the media go along with this approach time and again? We are not stupid. We are not robots. Too many of us have DIED trying to get this story (and other stories). Ask any journalists and they will tell you that no one tells them what to write or what to do. Yet there is a homogenized flavor and Pentagon echo to much coverage of this war that shames our profession. Why? Is it because reporters buy into the ideology of the mission? Because there are few visible war critics to provide dissenting takes? Or is it because information management has been so effective as to disallow any other legitimate approach? An uncritical stance is part of the problem. Disseminating misinformation often adds up to an inaccurate picture of where we are in this war."
o Stratfor, a global intelligence consultant comments on the war on terrorism saying that the media have become cheerleaders as "Coverage of the 'war on terrorism' has reversed the traditional role between the press and the military." The problem with this, as they continue, is that "The reversal of roles between media and military creates public expectations that can affect the prosecution of the war." Or, more bluntly put, the media becomes an effective mouthpiece for propaganda.
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To Whomever Might be Interested: The Military and the Media.
First, my credentials. As a now-retired professional military public affairs specialist, I served - among other assignments - as the "accreditation and support" official, on the staff of General Abrams in Saigon, for all journalists in Vietnam, 1969-70. As a historian, I'm a student of military-media relations; my last book (of seven), "Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War" is a fairly comprehensive study of the topic.
That said, FYI:
The first attempt to send professional journalists to cover armed conflict - the Mexican War, 1848. A consortium of newspapers (largely from New York and New Orleans) put five men in the field; their efforts were spotty and have largely been lost, but they demonstrated one truth: free enterprise and initiative will trump bureaucracy, any day. Using a combination of a proprietary pony express, steamboats, railroads and the telegraph (only available over a very short distance), they were able to get their reports to Washington well before official Army reports. The government was not amused; several editors were arrested for violating postal regulations.
The first real "confrontation" between the military and the media was in the Crimean War, when William Howard Russell of the London Times exposed gross incompetence within the British high command - and brought down the government. He proved that an unfettered journalist is a burden to the military in the field, anathema to a government at home, but essential to a free society.
During the Civil War, the "war correspondent" came of age - some, better than others. Newspapers were highly partisan (not just North and South - and some Northern papers supported the South -- but politically as well) and coverage was usually slanted to match editorial positions. Impact? Newspapers might be credited with triggering the secession, with starting the war, with forcing un-trained military units into bad strategy, with revealing details of planned operations, and with playing favorites among commanding generals (journalists needed support in the field - food, forage, access to the mail and the telegraph; the Army was not required to provide it).
Newspapers also delivered a running report of the war (more or less accurately), revealed mistakes and incompetence, but, above all, served as cheerleaders - both North and South - no matter how hopeful or hopeless the news of the day. Interesting to note: many general officers (North and South) wanted nothing to do with reporters, and Jefferson Davis never held a press conference, but the best general officer, U. S. Grant, said, in essence, "You are professionals. Do your job, I'll do mine," and Lincoln regularly welcomed them to the White House - he even snagged a few off the street, looking for more accurate (and timely) information than he was getting from some of his commanders.
The Spanish American War was not much of a war, but it was started in large part by the media. (Hearst to an artist in the field: "You provide pictures, I'll provide the war." He meant it.) For the U. S. invasion of Cuba, there was something like one journalist for every seven Army officers in the expeditionary force. Coverage was, well, spotty, but journalist Richard Harding Davis probably, indirectly, made Theodore Roosevelt President of the United States.
World War I: The Army granted some privileges to journalists - but not many. They were allowed to go to France, but not usually to the front lines. The Army gave them "official" dispatches. To qualify for this privilege, the journalists had to post a $10,000 bond.
World War II: The avowed press policy of Admiral E. J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, was "Don't tell them anything until the war is over, then tell them who won." He was not, I think, being facetious. However, journalists were put in uniform, with the equivalent rank of major. The Army and Navy provided support. There was pretty heavy censorship. Most didn't complain.
Korea: A mixed bag. There was censorship (as an ensign aboard a destroyer, I was assigned to censor the personal mail of the sailors. A hangover from WWII); I don't recall any significant issues.
Vietnam: No official censorship; the journalists themselves established reasonable ground rules (no advance info about planned operations, no photos of recognizable American dead, that sort of thing.) The U. S. forces provided considerable support - there was even a string of seven press camps, essentially, motels attached to regional headquarters. There was in-country transport on a moment's notice for press pools, tv crews.
So - who were qualified for this support? Almost anyone. A recent New York Times editorial ("Case of a Jailed Journalist," Aug.14) noted, "the First Amendment protects those who are engaged in journalism, not those certified as journalists by the government." Exactly this principle was applied to the accreditation of journalists in Vietnam War.
Then, since almost anyone with an airline ticket could get in to South Vietnam on a seven-day tourist visa, we were visited by a fair number of free-lance adventurers. Our rule: an applicant either had to be employed by the media or have a letter from an editor affirming that any copy submitted would be considered for publication. Thus, anyone who wanted to qualify, could, as long as they convinced an editor to give them a chance. And what was "the media?" Any entity that said it was "media." This included some some patently anti-military weeklies, and ad hoc start-ups among the freelancers as long as they set themselves up in some formal fashion as a business. One fledgling news service, for example, obtained incorporation in Hong Kong.
All told, more than 3000 individuals were accredited during the war; they ranged in politics from far left to far right and in age from 17 (a young woman on an honors project for her high school newspaper) to 85 (Rear Admiral Dan Gallery, USN ret., working on a proposed TV series). On any give day, 300 might be in country; when there was some special activity, perhaps 500 would be in country, but I don't remember that number ever being higher.
Note: technology was not much advanced from WWII. No satellite feeds. All TV was on film, flown out of the country to be developed. The portable videotape camera did not come into use until 1971 or 72, or thereabouts (first use: George Heineman, NBC VP, for a children's program. I think the camera was walked across a rope-bridge in some exotic location).
By the mid-80s, technology was rushing ahead. Satellites, etc. However, the Department of Defense did not seem to have noticed. To brag a bit: in a 1986 article in the Naval Institute Proceedings, I predicted that DoD would not be ready to handle the new media technology in the next war. I was right.
Gulf War: The media have complained that they were not given "access" to the battlefield. Perhaps. But - what does a military commander do when the number of foreign journalists in someone else's country (Saudi Arabia) goes from about zero to 1000 almost overnight? That's twice the number that we had in Vietnam at any one time - where they lived in a city of some 2 million people (Saigon) and were supported by a very mature infrastructure (see above).
The Gulf War military command tried to parcel journalists out to various commands - perhaps to get them out of the way, in a manner of speaking, but the action nonetheless put them where they said they wanted to be: on the front lines. Some of the journalists resisted - too paternalistic for their liking. They wanted to develop "independent" coverage. Some of them became Iraqi prisoners of war as a consequence, and were lucky it ended at that. (In a small irony, some of the military units resisted having journalists assigned to cover their activities. When the histories of the war came to be compiled, official and otherwise, those units largely disappeared; outside of unit daily logs, which don't much lend themselves to narrative, there was scant record of their participation.)
Today: the situation is fluid and rapidly-changing. A few weeks ago, journalists were all around the fringes of the war - on aircraft carriers, in Germany (flying on some missions), in Pakistan, with the Northern Alliance. Coverage was 24x7. And yet -some complained that they were being spoon-fed by the Pentagon; they resented the fact that the only source they had for Special Forces activities "was coming from the military." Well, perhaps someone had a better idea. Perhaps.
And recently, (November 18), we saw the other side of the coin, in a manner of speaking: a TV journalist who seemed to be getting in the way - or at least, perhaps screwing up intelligence efforts. He was reporting from a just-captured "safe house." He was going through cupboards and boxes, outlining what had been found. He seemed to be careless; I saw at least one piece of paper that looked important, end up on the floor, not back in the box where he found it. There was no indication that any of this material had yet been examined by anyone who might understand it.
Whatever, the basic tenet must hold: an unfettered press is a burden to the military in the field, anathema at the seat of government - and vital to a free, democratic society. But, sometimes, there are reasonable constraints. About which all sides should confer, and agree, not posture and postulate.
Enough. Hope this may be useful. Email if you want to discuss.
Cordially, Captain Brayton Harris USN (Retired)
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