Monday, January 05, 2004

Journalism's Own P.R. Problem 
Laura Rozen’s “Journalists Take Flak in Iraq,” (The Nation) is a good example of what happens when journalists neglect their real assignments and spend too much time talking to each other.

First of all, Rozen asserts that US soldiers “frequently confiscate their film disks and erase their videotapes.”

There’s no definition of what ‘frequently’ means; Rozen instead builds her case by relying upon anecdotal reports from a sample of two, and a reference to a letter of complaint signed by the heads of a number of news agencies and forwarded to

Rozen quotes Detroit Free Press reporter David Gilkey, who apparently had a film disk erased by an 82nd Airborne soldier, who says, "I truly understand that they are upset, and angry, that they've lost friends. The point is, however, you don't have the right to take disks and clean them. When did that become standard operating procedure?"

That’s a fair question. The responsible thing to do would be to answer it.

Unfortunately, Pozen doesn’t. bother.

The fact is that confiscating, erasing, or vandalizing reporters’ gear is NOT ‘standard operating procedure.’ In fact, when the Pentagon received the complaint from A.P. and the other news agencies, a copy of that very letter was forwarded to CENTCOM, who forwarded it to LTG Sanchez, who forwarded it to his division commanders, and so on right down to the company commander level—the lowest level at which written operations orders are commonly generated. I have a copy myself sitting right across from me. The Army’s media guidelines are very clear: US soldiers may not edit or destroy equipment or media belonging to credentialed journalists.

I’m not going to say that a problem doesn’t exist. It does. Those troops mentioned in the article were certainly in the wrong. But the word has gone out, and gone out to the troops multiple times. The problem isn’t that commanders haven’t gotten the word. The problem is that too many soldiers reflexively “hate reporters.” Except for the reporters that embed with the unit. Those reporters are usually alright.

It’s like all those polls that show that people overall have a negative opinion of Congress. But somehow everyone likes their own congressman. And he keeps getting elected.

But in nearly a year overseas, we’ve only had a few reporters bother “embedding” with us for longer than one or two patrols. Almost all of them swing by, hang out long enough to get a snarky quote and snap a photo or two, and then can’t wait to leave here so they can get back to their cushy Baghdad hotel and martinis in the Green Zone by nightfall.

Only a few have deigned to spend a few nights with us (hey, I have spare cots!), and actually get to know their beats down at the foxhole level. They’re not here for the ‘Dear John’ letters. They’re not here when we make friends in the community. They’re not here when we graduate a new class of police trainees. They’re not sharing chow. They aren’t here when we remodel a school, or install a new Internet system in the mayor’s office building. They don’t hang around with the troops for the mortar attacks that come after dark. They treat us like frat boys treat fat chicks: They say they respect us, but they won’t be sharing our beds.

But they’ll come along in a crisis, when everyone around them is spooked and pissed off and maybe someone’s friend just got shot up, and they’ll wonder, “How come troops act like they don’t know us?”

Who loses? Everyone. The reporter doesn’t get access. The public doesn’t get an effective watchdog press. And the soldier gets to try to implement the collective political will of a very shakily informed citizenry.

Here’s an ugly truth: the cultural gap between the professional soldier and the professional journalist is huge. Reporters—the ones from outlets big enough to send people out here—are blue-staters. Uniformly college-educated blue-staters. Soldiers are cultural red-staters. America’s soldiers defend Jeffersonian democracy; They are not college-educated Jeffersonian small ‘d’ democrats. Yes, they generally support the First Amendment, but don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. They prefer the Second, and will argue it for hours.

Their cultural preferences are projected thus: The most prominent supporters of the First Amendment, i.e., the ACLU, when they are considered at all, are viewed at best with an exasperated indulgence; at worst with venomous antipathy. But everyone knows who the NRA is, and copies of American Rifleman are easy to find.

Journalists who do their homework—who know their beats well, and who take the time to get to know U.S. troops—and just as importantly, BE known by them, who are there to cover and illuminate the news rather than allow their egos to become the news (are you reading this, Geraldo?) are going to get great access, and they’re going to come up with super stories. Like Ernie Pyle and John Huston did before them, and like lots of embedded reporters (most of whom have long since gone home) have in this war.

But if reporters—AMERICAN reporters—need to rely on commanders to lean on their troops to provide access for them, then they ought to have done enough navel-gazing about their own profession by now to ask themselves why.

I’ll bust my ass to ensure journalists get access. I’ve already made some decisions that were not popular at the time to ensure they get access to stories. But mutual respect a two-way street.

The journalist profession has a P.R. problem of its own out here.

It’s time for reporters to accept some responsibility for it.

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