The Military-Media Wars

Dec. 1, 1985

The dislike that the military and the news media have for each other is deep. bitter, and mutual. Military people believe that a biased, muckraking press is system­atically—and perhaps willfully—undercutting national security. For their part, reporters believe that they are routinely denied access to news by a military establishment that tends to regard the public’s business as none of the public’s business.

Consequently, nobody expected it to be a tea-sipping session when panelists representing the military and the media met in an Aerospace Education Foundation Roundtable debate on October 8 in Washington.

To illustrate the hostility that ex­ists on the military side, Col. Mi­chael P. McRaney, USAF Director of Public Affairs, quoted retired Army Gen. John Murray, who re­cently proclaimed that “engaging the press while engaging the enemy is taking on one adversary too many.”

Col. David Shea. Director of Pub­lic Affairs for Air Force Systems Command, said that it has become increasingly difficult to persuade senior officers—many of whom have been unfairly burned by the media in the past—to so much as talk to a reporter.

William Beecher of the Boston Globe—and also a former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs—said that the big split developed during the Vietnam War, when newsmen felt they were misled by the nation’s civilian and military leaders and when the mili­tary felt that some reporters con­sciously undermined the war effort with their reporting. “Both Vietnam and Watergate fed the notion that representatives of our government sometimes lie when it serves their purpose.” Mr. Beecher said.

The prime topic of debate, how­ever, was the role and behavior of a free press in a free society. Ike Pap­pas of CBS News said that he re­gards himself as a representative of the public when he covers a story. Bill Monroe, longtime moderator of Meet the Press and now with the Today show, found the idea that re­porters represent the public “presumptuous” and declared: “1 represent NBC News!”

John Keeley, a retired Army colo­nel, a military affairs commentator for the Cable News Network, and legislative aide to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), put it a different way: “The media are the only public audit of public activity. There is no inde­pendent audit of our government ex­cept by the media.” Reporters, though, “are not public servants, and they should not forget that they work for private corporations that make money. They often hide irre­sponsibility under the First Amend­ment.’

Bearing down on responsibility of the media, AFA Executive Director Russell E. Dougherty, moderator of the Roundtable, presented a ques­tion sent up from the audience: “Privately, many newsmen will ac­knowledge instances of incompe­tence or even blatant bias by other newsmen. Publicly, though, the me­dia close ranks, circle the wagons, and wrap themselves in the First Amendment. if the media will not police themselves and do it publicly, why shouldn’t someone else do the policing?”

The media people on the panel posed a counter-question: Who would sit in judgment? They re­jected official government control of the media as unacceptable. Mr. Monroe said that the National News Council, which once tried to per­form the function of criticism, “finally went out of business be­cause the press refused to pay any attention to it.” The real control, Mr. Monroe said, is the audience. “There’s a boundary beyond which we cannot go. There are outrages we can’t commit and maintain the mass audience that we need.” Mr. Beecher said that incompetent re­porters are gradually weeded out.

Irresponsibility by the media strengthens the already strong forces within government that are inclined to keep release of infor­mation to a minimum. Colonel McRaney said that he always argues for voluntary release of any material that could be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and contends that if information is too sensitive to be let out, then it ought to be classified. He said he didn’t expect the media to be cheerlead­ers, but he did expect “fairness, bal­ance, perspective, accuracy, rea­son, and sensitivity.” The most important of these, in Colonel Shea’s view, is balance. He quoted the advice of Joseph Califano in his book Governing America: “Try to tell the difference between tides. waves, and ripples.”

There was general agreement that the combatants in the military-me­dia war should know more about each other. Mr. Pappas said that older military people may be too set in their opinions to change, but that younger ones should have formal training in media relations. He’d be willing to address Academy cadets, he said. The Air Force Academy public affairs officer, present in the audience, promptly served up an in­vitation for Mr. Pappas to speak to the cadets—and asked when the media planned to put on a course for reporters and invite the military to lecture.

The military-media wars are like­ly to go on for awhile, but it might do wonders for détente if every report­er honestly subscribed to the philos­ophy put forth by Mr. Monroe in his summation: “We cover the news that’s there, and we do so in the faith that the facts, in the long run, are going to bring us clear.”