Saturday, October 21, 2006

It's About the Perception, Stupid.

On Tuesday, October 17, Callimachus wrote a post entitled Think Ink. He wanted

to explain something about the media and Iraq without reference to the media and Iraq. Instead [I] want to talk about the media and the problem of American cities, specifically mine (because I know that one best).


Some people have somehow convinced themselves that the media has no influence on reality. If it had no such influence, there's be no point in protecting it, as our constitution does. Of course the media makes a difference. Imagine if you had someone with a camera and a tape recorder following you around all day. Imagine how many things you'd do, or wouldn't do, and how often you'd do something differently.

It changes reality. And in most cases, that's beneficent to our society and a bulwark of democracy....

So can we at least dispense with the notion that the media changes nothing? It changes reality in more subtle ways, too. It is an unwritten axiom in the media itself. We push, or withhold, or play up, or play down, certain stories based on an awareness of how they are likely to change reality.
Cal then gives some examples of how news coverage has shaped the image of the town in which he lives, and how that coverage has distorted that image. Read the whole post for context. Cal’s point isn’t that there’s necessarily more good news than bad, but that the negative coverage by itself does not give a complete or accurate picture.

In the comments, M. Takhallus starts a bit of a dust up with this:
What I think you overlook Cal, is that the media and the administration is already censoring the negative stories coming out of Iraq.
Cal asks him to back this claim up, which MT doesn’t do very effectively. (Many points are made in that comment thread. I recommend it.)

Today, however, I came across something that backs up this claim. Michael Yon, an independent journalist who has done a lot of embed work in the last couple of years, writes a scathing piece for The Weekly Standard claiming that the military is censoring news in Iraq:
I feel no shame in saying I hope that Afghanistan and Iraq "succeed," whatever that means. For that very reason, it would be a dereliction to remain silent about our military's ineptitude in handling the press. The subject is worthy of a book, but can't wait that long, lest we grow accustomed to a subtle but all too real censorship of the U.S. war effort.

I don't use the word lightly. Censorship is a hand grenade of an accusation, and a writer should be serious before pulling the pin. Indeed, some war-zone censorship for reasons of operational security is obviously desirable and important. No one can complain when Delta Force will not permit an embed. In fact, I have turned down offers to embed with some Special Operations forces because the limitations on what I could write would not be worth the danger and expense. But we can and should complain when authorities willfully limit war reporting. We should do so whether it happens as a matter of policy, or through incompetence or bureaucratic sloth. The result is the same in any case. And once the matter has been brought to the attention of the military and the Pentagon--which I have quietly done--and still the situation is not rectified, it is time for a public accounting.
He calls out someone in particular:
Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson has repeatedly gone on record decrying the lack of press coverage in Iraq, all while alienating the last vestiges of any press willing to spend month after month in combat with American soldiers. Meanwhile, "the most quoted man in Iraq" has become a major media source in his own right. Too bad there is no one else to tell the story of our troops. Too bad the soldiers' families have little idea what they are up to from day to day.

As stated at the outset, many PAO officers are extremely hardworking and dedicated. My dealings with other PAOs, such as USMC Major Jeffrey Pool and Army Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, have been exemplary. But a system that so easily thwarts the work of good men and women is a system in desperate need of an overhaul.
Yon closes with this:
The media do matter. Our troops are naked without them. Our people would probably still be driving down Iraqi roads in unarmored Humvees were it not for the likes of journalist Edward Lee Pitts, who got a National Guardsman to pose the now infamous "hillbilly armor" question to the secretary of defense. Seven days a week I communicate with wounded service members and families of service members killed in action. They ask, "When are you going back?" They long to hear the details--good, bad, or ugly--that bring them closer to their loved ones. Some get impatient and short with me, perhaps not realizing that Lt. Col. Barry Johnson has the final say and doesn't recognize my work or that of Walt Gaya as warranting an embed on his watch. As this magazine goes to press, military sources tell me that Johnson is on his way out of CPIC, and his successor is said to be much better. This may count as good news. But a system so dependent on the whims of a single officer cannot be relied upon.

The media are far from perfect. War reporters, like everyone else, get things wrong. Some of them, unsympathetic to the war aims, undoubtedly try to twist the news. But no coverage at all is even worse. It does a disservice to American soldiers. It is cruel to their families. It leaves the American public in the dark. If we lose the media war, we will lose Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire "war on terror."

If our military cannot win the easy media battles with writers who are unashamed to say they want to win the war, there is no chance of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans and Iraqis, and both wars will be lost. And some will blame the media. But that will not resurrect the dead.
This is a double-barreled shotgun blast by Yon, and in The Weekly Standard, no less, which can hardly be accused of being against the Iraq War. So there is definitely some support for Takhallus's accusation of censorship, although it looks like this may be as much about bureaucratic incompetence as it is policy. (This issue is yet to be resolved.)

This can’t help but have an effect on the coverage. More Yon:
In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda's media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have "journalists" crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an "embed" media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.
A week or so earlier, Cal had run a series of posts by a friend of his had been a contractor in Iraq. These posts outlined her security situation, and made it clear that the media could get out and do more reporting around Iraq than they do currently. But if the American news media does not have the opportunity to embed with US forces, we shouldn’t be surprised that the coverage doesn’t reflect that point of view. Whether intentional or not, this is incompetence in managing the information front, and ultimately the Administration’ responsibility.

More from Yon:
There's little comfort in the supposition that this mess might be more the result of incompetence than policy. After all, what does it matter whether the helicopter crashed because it ran out of gas or because someone didn't tighten the bolts on a rotor? Our military enjoys supremely one-sided air and weapons superiority, but this is practically irrelevant in a counterinsurgency where the centers of gravity for the battle are public opinion in Iraq, Afghanistan, Europe, and at home. The enemy trumps our jets and satellites with supremely one-sided media superiority. The lowest level terror cells have their own film crews. While al Sahab hums along winning battle after propaganda battle, the bungling gatekeepers at the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) reciprocate with ridiculous and costly obstacles that deter embedded media covering our forces, ultimately causing harm to only one side: ours. And they get away with it because in any conflict that can be portrayed as U.S. military versus media, the public reflexively sides with the military.
This is an immense failure. The other day President Bush acknowledged that the current violence is akin to the Tet Offensive. He meant this in the sense that the enemies are trying to win a decisive public relations battle. Well Mr. President, if you lose Michael Yon, you will lose any chance of winning this battle.


Callimachus said...

Thanks for bringing my attention to the Yon story, which is potent medicine. That this is yet another example of incompetence is sad, and sadly predictable. I note, however, that Yon does not appear to say the government is censoring bad news. One could insert that between the lines, but I think if Yon meant that he'd say it. Instead, he takes pains to point out that there's nothing more certain to generate respectful appreciation of our military effort than allowing reporters to watch it up close.

Icepick said...

That's about the way I read it as well, which actually makes it more infuriating.