All The News That's... A Rebuttal

All The News That's... A Rebuttal

By Jill Russell

I have known Bob Bateman several years through our mutual participation in H-War, another internet forum, and from that experience I have great respect for him. However, I must disagree with his dismissive critique of David Barstow's New York Times article. To the contrary, I would argue that the muted tones of the piece belied problems far deeper than would be inferred from his recent blog post. That retired officers are acting as the puppets of DoD in their role as network and cable news military analysts is troubling when examined within the historical context of the Vietnam War's effect upon the credibility of military officers and the subsequent decades-long effort to restore their reputation for integrity. Thus, if the NYT article deserves criticism (1) , I would submit it's for missing the real significance, in big historic terms, of the military "analyst" story.

It may seem almost heretical to suggest, but the single greatest casualty of the Vietnam War for the American military was not the damage done to cohesion and morale, or training and readiness. These are actually fairly common occurrences in the aftermath of any American war, successful or not. (2) Rather, the real tragedy of that war was the American public's loss of faith in the credibility of the military leadership. And although there is constant scholarly (and other) jousting as to the outcome and ramifications of the Tet Offensive, what cannot be disputed is that it was at this point in the war that the American people began to doubt the veracity of what they heard from their nation's officers. The constant repetition that the "light at the end of the tunnel" was in sight, that the war's successful conclusion was just around the corner, could not be squared with the events of '68.

Over the course of the three decades that followed the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces worked mightily to improve their reputation with the American public. Consider the institution most damaged by this effect of the Vietnam War, the Army. According to John Brinsfield's 1998 Parameters article, "Army Values and Ethics: A Search for Consistency and Relevance," "no other army improved itself as extensively in the eyes of the public as an organization worthy of trust and support as did the United States Army between 1968 and 1991." Later in the article, he provides a measure of the distance traveled by the Army in regaining the public's confidence:

"A 1973 Harris poll had revealed that by the end of the Vietnam War, the American public ranked the military only above sanitation workers in relative order of respect. (And some said that the sanitation workers had gotten a bum rap.) By 1989 a Harris survey found that Americans ranked the military above big business, organized labor, the medical community, banks, newspapers, Congress, television, newspapers, and even the Supreme Court in trust."

Another work, David King and Zachary Karabell's The Generation of Trust: Public Confidence in the U. S. Military Since Vietnam, chronicles this development in even greater detail across all of the services.

The success of these efforts continues to this day. A 2007 survey by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government shows that the military retains the public's highest level of confidence. Even four years into an unsuccessful war, when the administration's reputation has been ravaged by the course of events, the military's status as a trustworthy institution has not even faltered.

Given this standing, the American public is prepared to put great faith in the pronouncements of military personnel, whether they are on active duty or are retired. The uniform, the legacy of service, the short haircut and ramrod posture, etc., all combine to form a powerful image of the individual's respectability. When they speak, people listen.

We must also remember that the audience's perception of these "military analysts" is that they are speaking to the American people based upon their professional expertise. This is clearly how they are marketed in their appearances. After all, "Pentagon Puppet" does not appear under their names when they are on air. Speaking from their professional expertise, their opinions would likely have been accorded a great deal of weight with the audience. And according to the article the administration appreciated the pride of place these analysts held in their incarnations as media pundits. The following excerpts from various points in the article make this clear:

"The analysts, they noticed, often got more airtime than network reporters, and they were not merely explaining the capabilities of Apache helicopters. They were framing how viewers ought to interpret events. What is more, while the analysts were in the news media, they were not of the news media."

"Mr. Di Rita, no longer at the Defense Department, said in an interview that a 'conscious decision' was made to rely on the military analysts to counteract 'the increasingly negative view of the war' coming from journalists in Iraq. The analysts.... and the combination of their TV platforms and military cachet made them ideal for rebutting critical coverage of issues like troop morale, treatment of detainees, inadequate equipment or poorly trained Iraqi security forces. 'On those issues, they were more likely to be seen as credible spokesmen,' he said."

"An internal memorandum in 2005 helped explain why [the military analysts had such access to DoD's power center]. The memorandum, written by a Pentagon official who had accompanied analysts to Iraq, said that based on her observations during the trip, the analysts 'are having a greater impact' on network coverage of the military. 'They have now become the go-to guys not only on breaking stories, but they influence the views on issues,' she wrote."

Furthermore, the burnished reputation of retired officers has been such that they are often used to speak on any matters related to the armed forces, whether their expertise warranted it. One example of this that I recall was a segment done by CNN with one of their "analysts," a retired Army General, whose charge it was to discuss how something done by Sen. Reid was harming the morale of the families of deployed personnel. (3) I sat there watching in disbelief, the family member of a Marine deployed to Fallujah, and I just wanted to crawl through the TV screen and throttle the man. Not only was he completely wrong about what affected my morale, but who was he to speak to the issue as an expert? I hate to break it to you military folks, but the experience of the family left at home is not your bailiwick. To turn the tables and make my point, consider: My husband has been to war -- does that make me competent to speak to what it's like to be shot at? However, I have no doubt that to many folks such a comment from a general, so shiny and pretty, must have had an effect on their thinking about the issue. I can just hear the conversation between John and Jane Q. Public over morning coffee: "Honey, I think Sen. Reid is correct, but what about the military families?" "No, we can't hurt them, think of their sacrifices!" "Yes, we'll have to rethink our opinion, because we care." "Yes, we wouldn't want people to think we don't support the troops!"

My original response to the piece was personal; I was peeved at having this general misrepresent my struggle and hardships. In light of Barstow's article, however, I have had occasion to rethink this episode. Given the administration's use of the "Support the Troops" mantra to blunt any public or official contradiction of the party line, the general's comments must be reconsidered. I am now left to wonder whether he was not broadcasting a DoD talking point meant to sway public opinion against Reid. After all, possibly the worst offense to the Yellow Ribbon Policy would be to harm military personnel via the demoralization of the families left behind. I feel dirty and badly used.

And this is the crux of the real tragedy of this story. The American public was being peddled the administration's positions as if they were the opinions of independent analysts. The audience had an expectation that these officers were providing them with a professional's view of information about the war, strategy, operations, tactics, etc. And that trust was betrayed.

Don't get me wrong. I think the networks deserve a swift kick in the head for allowing themselves to be the unwitting Johns to DoD's pundit pimping. And this certainly won't help their reputation with the public. But, in the end, the media is not my primary concern.

The real threat, however, is to the reputation of the armed forces and its current and future leaders. There is no separation between these retirees and the active duty folks -- the latter are affected by the actions of the former. The reputation of all officers will be tarnished if the public feels they were deceived by these analysts. Does anyone think it would be good for the country to return to the days when the military did not hold the esteem or trust of the public?

Alternatively, and far more scary, is the prospect for a more serious criticism of the officer corps at large. To be blunt, what do these activities say about the character of senior military officers? If they were —to betray the quality of their professional opinions in favor of scripted talking points, access to the powerful, and a fatter wallet, then what can be concluded about the development of integrity and character within the officer corps? I'm not at the point of being pessimistic in my answers to these questions. But I can't help asking them.

Jill Russell holds an MA from SAIS and is a doctoral candidate in Contemporary American Military History at The George Washington University. She is currently working to complete her dissertation, a socio-cultural history of morale and food and dining traditions in the American military. She has also worked as a defense contractor in Washington, DC.

Endnotes

(1) Quite frankly, I could care less about the money issue. To borrow Bob's mock horror, ooooh, someone tried to parlay prior government service to line their pockets after retirement, I'm so shocked. (I would prefer if they'd use their power for good, but that's another rant.) Nor am I bothered -- or surprised -- that the administration pursued developed such a program.

(2) I've just been reading a 1998 article by Brian Linn about the frontier Army of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and he chronicles similar problems at that time as well. We all know what came of that -- victory in two world wars. I would provide a link to the article, but it is not freely available. However, those with access to JSTOR or similar databases of journals should be able to access it. "Long Twilight of the Frontier Army," Western Historical Quarterly, Summer 1996.

(3) A good indication of how utterly unimportant Reid's alleged perfidy was to my morale at the time is the fact that I can't even remember what Reid was being pilloried for in the first place. The same cannot be said for the general's comments.

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Sargent:
"The article cites at least a few instances where individual analysts put their own opinions to the side in favor of the Pentagon talking points. Generally, in research, one usually accepts that if a few examples are found that there are likely to be more."

I was speaking to the vast majority of their statements, but that is a relevant point that you raise. And I agree that there are probably more examples. The onus remains on the author to explain why that should worry us. I have said and done things that my gut told me did not seem prudent, but I trusted my company and battalion commander because I knew they were looking at the bigger picture and possibly had information that I did not. I lose no sleep over the thought that a retired General would do the same.

If the article is seeking to reveal some truth, rather than to simply achieve an effect upon the audience, then the author should move beyond suggestive statements with words that have a conspiratorial connotation to them. He should move on from where he repeatedly stopped short, and state unequivocally what he is trying to lead his audience to believe: "General X lied about fact Y for a personal gain of Z."

The article simply points out suggestions of collusion on issues where it seems the Generals were true believers, who happened to have financial conflicts of interest that may or may not have been a factor. That is a perception of unethical conduct. Say it. Make the accusation. Just hinting and suggesting is nothing more than drive-by journalism.

The author suggests that this was a PSYOP campaign waged by paying off greedy retired Generals who did not care about the truth. That the author would leap to such a conclusion and attempt to lead the reader to that conclusion is either an indicator of the author's dishonesty or an indicator of the durability of the bubble that he lives in.

Carl,

I concur, Allard went too far in his dismissiveness. But then again, Carl, you know that you're pretty unique in the news industry.

About two months ago, on a lark, I did a survey of about 20 Journalism programs and/or non-national newspapers...none had a course about covering Nat'l Security, or in the case of the papers, a dedicated Nat'l Security/military reporter. (Didn't have to be a full time beat, just somebody to whom they always turned on military-related stories who might then build up knowledge.) That's none, zero, zip. Which does somewhat buttress Allard's meaning, if not his prose.

Jill, send me an e-mail (my sacrificial address is R_bateman_ltc@hotmail.com) and I'll respond from my real address. I have an article coming out in AFJ in about two weeks...supposedly the cover, "The Relief of Generals." Mild historical analysis. You might get a giggle.

Bob Bateman

"Which, perhaps, is why generals -- retired or otherwise -- probably should read(LA Times link)"

I agree they should. However, while all the reporters named have done great work and I seek out the writing of all of them (and a few more), regrettably there have been a far larger number of reporter's bylines attached to less than credible articles about both theaters.

I suggest therein lies the General's concern -- and I know that's where the lower ranks concern is focused.

"...introduce its lessons into all those testosterone-charged ROTC classes Allard admires."

I believe the even more testosterone charged guy known as Joe has had a lesson in the theaters that negates your suggestion. I believe the American media has lost a large number of potential readers, those who have served in the last few years. Given the Guard and Reserve callup -- and all the families, that is not an inconsiderable number of people...

If you'll notice, my first response on the SWC was sorta generic and I agreed with the article but thought the valid concern was overstated. The later posting by me on the topic was that above and was aimed directly at Prine's comment, not at the initial entry...

As you say, we can disagree over interpretations.

Gian -- I deeply appreciate your kind words and empathy/compassion. I had tried out my thesis that generals weren't necessarily experts on homefront morale on another officer and he was quite offended. I felt rather as though I had gone a bit too far -- until, a week later, when I began my odyssey into the world of a significant casualty event on my husband's team. My upbraiding was undone after spending hours on the phone helping out one family of a wounded team member, more time on a heartwrenching phone call with the family of another Marine killed, a funeral and then more hours at hospital bedsides. I'll tell you, it was a horrible insight into the COs burden when I had to sit down to write to the rest of the families informing them of what had happened. That was one year ago this week. Hard to believe that so much time has passed -- and that I am right back there again, albeit now only at the beginning of this deployment.

But I digress. My significant concern is for the health and vigor of the services and the integrity of the officer corps (granted, I have a rather vested and personal interest in the latter). It's been over a year since Yingling's scathingly blunt challenge to the ranks of senior officers, but I can't help but think that his critique resonates in this story. Whether all of the officers involved sacrificed their integrity for access is far less relevant than the damage that can be wrought by the perception that the officer corps is not the strong, honorable institution it is meant to be. Stories like this do not help the image of the officer, and by extension, the services generally.

Bob -- Don't worry, I'm not a Fox News watcher. I used to watch the morning program as a lark, until I realized that a weather man, a sports reporter, and a bleached blonde (I have no idea what other qualifications she had) were the gatekeepers of the news and providers of analyses. Anyway, I feared that my head would explode, so I quit. I did on occasion watch the other news networks during the last deployment, hoping to get some information. That was for naught, as I found that if it wasn't happening in Baghdad, it didn't make it on air. So, I became an expert Googler of Fallujah (and its many spelling iterations), and often found the most information on the jihadist websites. I kept waiting for the FBI to come knocking, and imagining how I was going to explain why I spent so much time on websites like "jihadunspun" and "uruknet." While they had their own spin - duh - they did at least have the local news I was looking for, and I knew what sort of unspin to apply.

Carl -- I did not mean to downplay the potential for damage to the press, only that, being a military historian I could not speak to that issue with any sort of authority. I'll leave it to you to continue doing that job. Well done thus far.

Ken -- I'm not sure why you took the time to write two messages (here and on the message board) to say that this was a non-issue. Seems more than necessary. I do disagree with your assertion that most Americans didn't pay any credence to the military analysts. I would submit that the respect the American public currently has for the military would suggest otherwise. The importance DoD put on the program would tend to support this conclusion as well. However, sensible people can disagree over interpretations.

Schmedlap -- The article cites at least a few instances where individual analysts put their own opinions to the side in favor of the Pentagon talking points. Generally, in research, one usually accepts that if a few examples are found that there are likely to be more. (I hope that makes sense.) Plus, at the end of the day you have the problem of tainting -- the effect of the single spoiled apple on the rest.

By way of my own conclusion to this multiple response, I offer the paragraphs below, from the Allard "it wasn't me-a culpa." The last sentence of the first paragraph almost seems to suggest that the media, being somewhat vulnerable, got what it deserved. I find it a rather strange sentiment, along the lines of "to hell with them, they didn't care about my work, and now I have the chance to stick it to them." The military analysts were given a duty, one of crucial importance to the republic, and he seems to think only in terms payback. The last paragraph is truly scary. Is this the work of our government, to find ways to manipulate the citizenry? We should be proud of the Pentagon for "perfecting its technique" in this endeavor? And as for the "future generations of Couch Potatoes," why ever did he serve this country if he has such disdain for the people?

"Journalistic ethics is one of the great contradictions -- like military intelligence or liberal intellectual. But a particular perversity is required by the Times or anyone else who overlooks the reason why the Warheads were created in the first place. The fact is that military science has never been a graduation requirement in the testosterone-free zones of our journalism schools. When 9-11 forced the networks to confront their long tradition of military illiteracy, they instinctively outsourced informed commentary to the Warheads."

[snip]

"So give the Pentagon its due: because under Rumsfeld they grasped with remarkable shrewdness the real implications of a citizenry grown weary of its Minuteman heritage. And steadily experimented to perfect the techniques of manipulating future generations of Couch Potatoes."

http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/columnists/kallard/stories/MYSA04240...

Bob, thank you for citing your expanded essay. It was an enjoyable read.

I also should tell everyone that Ken Allard has posted his own perspective about the flap at http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/columnists/kallard/stories/MYSA04240....

I take some personal exception to his blanket dismissal of journalists (low testosterone?), seeing as I was getting my ass shot at in Anbar as a grunt while he was explaining it all on NBC in air conditioned comfort, but fair enough.

I'll concede that the major networks (and much of American society) outsourced a working knowledge of the military during the AVF and the end of conscription.

But I trust that he would concede that reporters in Iraq from 2003 - 2007 called what was transpiring there better than SecDef Rumsfeld's OSD, MNF-I or the vast majority of retired generals featured in the NYT story.

Which, perhaps, is why generals -- retired or otherwise -- probably should read http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-boot10jan10,1,3592996.column and introduce its lessons into all those testosterone-charged ROTC classes Allard admires.

Perhaps the Generals were stating what they actually believed. Has anyone considered that? Or are we seeing the perception of unethical conduct and assuming guilt?

Carl,

I answered that (and agree) in my column on CCJ. See it here: http://www.concernedjournalists.org/care-and-feeding-military-analysts

Sorry man, just much easier to send you the link than to re-type the same points.

Bob Bateman

Interesting interplay. Makes me happy I rarely watch television due to just such assininity.

These statements: "While I agree with Jill Russell that the potential blowback from this might harm the reputation of the military, I'm far more concerned about the damage it could do to the free press.

Both wounds, I might add, were self inflicted."

May be correct applied to the potential reaction of some, however, I suspect that most Americans fully understood the "experts" were bloviators and could generally be disregarded as providing anything meaningful. It is also probable most believe that the 'free press' does itself far more harm by its elevation of the Blonde du jour and local incidents to national prominence and by its selective editorial actions than by this lapse of common sense on their part.

Much ado about zip

Bob, now you're just being flippant.

It's not all about Fox News. The NYT article named a rogue's gallery of retired military talking heads at other networks that seemed to swap televised talking-point favors for access, or otherwise betrayed institutional or political loyalties that should have made some of their expertise suspect.

A sampling would include Donald W. Shepperd (USAF and CNN), Montgomery Meigs (USA and NBC), William L. Nash (USA and ABC) and Robert H. Scales Jr (NPR), but the universe was larger than that. Fox might have been the chief culprit, but it wasn't alone.

The lede therefore isn't that DoD tries to spin the news. That's pure dog bits man stuff. DoD always has tried to polish a turd, or didn't you read many PAO releases between 2003 and 2007?

Rather, the nutgraf is that news consumers were duped by those assumed to wear the mantle of military authority and honor. These (mostly) men were entangled in commercial, political and institutional lifelines that should have either been disclosed or cut before they went on the air.

I can't fault retired generals for wanting to turn a buck, inflict their opinions on the general public or pay back to the institution that gave them a career a certain amount of good publicity.

But I most certainly will fault the retired generals for a fair amount of dissembling, venality and perfidy showcased in the NYT story.

Are you really all that proud of their retirement conduct in these matters? Would you have behaved the same way?

As journalists, we also must do better. A good first step might be to simply ban payments to any "expert" talking heads for their recitations about any subject. This isn't a matter of concern to print reporters, but our TV colleagues shouldn't need to navigate that ethical minefield.

Next, the press should more thoroughly scrutinize any potential biases inherent to expert sources. I know I do this, but I wonder if some of my peers are as ready or as willing to turn the BS detector on when a sage military guru opens his big yap and just ask, "What's in this for you?"

While I agree with Jill Russell that the potential blowback from this might harm the reputation of the military, I'm far more concerned about the damage it could do to the free press.

Both wounds, I might add, were self inflicted.

Jill, Bob Bateman here.

I think the more simple solution to your problem is just to stop watching Fox News.

They're the only ones, so far as I can discern, who try that sort of crap, and hire (mostly, excepting Scales) political partisans who just happened to have once worn a uniform, as opposed to people with legitimate intellectual/military credentials.

This is buttressed by the fact that it was Fox analysts, by a huge margin, that the political types in DoD used for their spin. Fox News, in short, hates America. (Additional evidence is that they carry only 1/3 to 1/5 of the war news that "normal" stations carry. But they lead the pack in coverage on Anna Nicole Smith and that 18-year-old blond that went missing on a Carribean island.)

Bob

Jill:

Beautifully written rebuttal to Bobs piece. I especially liked and commend to others this most moving and heartfelt sentence on your experience of a wife of a deployed marine from the perspective of the military family:

"... but who was he to speak to the issue as an expert? I hate to break it to you military folks, but the experience of the family left at home is not your bailiwick."

That realization came to me upon return from Iraq in December 2006 and during the first week of my return I attended a monthly memorial ceremony (my wife as FRG leader had attended every one during our deployment but when I asked her to go to this one with me once we had returned she quietly told me that she did not want to go, at that point I did not really know why). Unlike the memorial ceremonies that we held in country for fallen soldiers this one back home was different. Moms, Dads, little sisters, brothers, wives, etc were in attendance. In Iraq as hard as it was to loose a soldier, once the ceremony was complete we still had each other as a combat team and a mission to accomplish. We moved on. But that memorial ceremony back home was different. I still remember sitting in the chapel listening to the quiet, heart wrenching sobs of a mother crying for her lost son as the sergeant major at the end of the ceremony called the role for the fallen soldiers. Throughout the ceremony in quiet sobs she kept asking "why?" I looked around and into the faces of other family members in attendance for their fallen loved ones. I had not experienced anything like that in Iraq. At the end of the ceremony as I was walking out to my car I bumped into a command sergeant major from another combat battalion in the Division, an old friend of mine, and I gave him a hug, cried on his shoulder for a few seconds and he told me: "it is ok, Sir, it is over, we are back."

Now I know why my wife didnt want to attend that ceremony because the previous 12 that she did attend during our deployment just wore her out. And to Jill, yes the experience of the families of deployed combat soldiers is not our bailiwick, it is yours, and I have the deepest respect for what you all go through. I can imagine your feeling when your world was reduced to an object for exploitation as you observed in that interview. It is your world and we can never really know it just as you can never really know ours.

And Jill you are correct to point out the bigger issue of the NY Times article dealing with trust not only of senior retired military officers but trust between the military overall and the American people. That "noble dream" of objectivity and a reasonable amount of detachment with these retired officers seems to be in question which potentially could elevate to a break down in trust between the military as an institution and the American people. We should at least be worried about this and not dismissive of it.

Your friend,

gian