Politics & Policy

Journalism At War

Let's not return to the days.

A year ago, the Pentagon took what many people considered to be a giant risk when it embedded reporters with U.S. units during the march to Baghdad. Old-timers remembered the acrimonious depths to which military-media relations had fallen in the aftermath of Vietnam. The fact was that for a very long time after that conflict, military members believed in their hearts that reporters were part of the counter-culture trying to “get them.” Accordingly, the military limited press access to battlefields for over two decades.

The embedding experiment worked–at least for a while. Unfortunately, the media seem to have returned to their old ways. On June 3, U.S. Central Command issued this press release:

COALITION SOLDIERS QUESTION NEWS MEDIA FOLLOWING ROADSIDE BOMB

MOSUL, Iraq – Coalition soldiers questioned two news media cameramen and a reporter after a roadside bomb exploded near a Coalition convoy two kilometers north of Mosul June 3.

The media, who were at the scene prior to the attack, told soldiers at the scene they had received a tip to be at that location prior to the attack and they had witnessed the explosion.

There was minimal damage to a Coalition vehicle, a cracked windshield, and no serious injuries.

3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division soldiers requested the media accompany them to a base camp in Mosul to answer questions as witnesses to the incident. The news media representatives left the base camp in the mid afternoon.

This report brings to mind an episode that took place some years ago in the aftermath of Vietnam and went a long way toward cementing the military’s negative image of the press. In his book, The Military and the Media, William Kennedy describes this revealing exchange during a military-media symposium:

The moderator of a panel that included Peter Jennings of ABC News, Mike Wallace of CBS, and Marine Colonel George Connell, offered a hypothetical scenario: In wartime, you are invited to accompany an enemy unit that says it will prove that an ally of the United States is committing atrocities. While accompanying the enemy patrol, you find yourself in the midst of preparations for an ambush that may very well cause the death of Americans. Do you try to warn the Americans?

After hesitating, Jennings replied that he would try to warn the Americans. But Wallace responded that he would regard it as just another story and that he would not feel a “higher duty” to warn the Americans. Col. Connell watched this exchange in what can only be described as a cold rage. When asked to comment, Col. Connell said of Wallace, “I feel utter contempt. Two days later those same two journalists [could be] caught in an ambush and are lying 200 yards from my position, and they expect that I’m going to send Marines to get them. They’re not Americans. They’re just journalists.”

I hope we don’t go back to this. After the advances in military-media relations achieved by the Pentagon’s embedding program, it would be a pity to return to the bad old days of animosity and mistrust.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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