On the third day of POW training I was dragged out of my cell and blindfolded. I had barely eaten in two days, and I was happy to finally get out of the telephone-booth-sized enclosure — complete with a bucket for relieving myself – into which I had been stuffed. But I also knew what this meant — it was time for another interrogation. I had already survived several techniques of coercion, and I wondered with some worry about what was in store for me next.
The blindfold was lifted as I was thrown in a room with some fellow “POWs.” There were two men and a woman standing in front of us, dressed in western-style clothes. One of the men had a TV camera, another had a notepad and the woman had a microphone.
Our resistance skills were about to be tested by a group the military considers to be some of the shrewdest interrogators and mistrusted people in the world – the press.
The military trains for interacting with the press the same way it trains for interrogation and torture as a prisoner of war. And as unfair as it may be, that is the stigma that you as a journalist have to overcome when you approach a member of the military. I shared this skepticism and distrust of the press during my career as an Air Force special operations pilot.
Your challenge as a journalist is to:
- Overcome the stigma
- Build rapport
- Ask intelligent and sophisticated questions
- Balance producing objective and accurate journalism with the military’s job to protect the American people.
It’s not an easy task. Journalists in a democracy have a duty to objectively and accurately relate the experience of war and military issues to civilian society. There are some things to keep in mind to effectively do this.
They don’t trust you
The military’s distrust of the news media is due in part to a perception among military leaders that the Vietnam War was lost because the media turned public opinion against the conflict. Journalists covering Vietnam frequently challenged the government’s upbeat press releases and pointed out inconsistencies between the military’s account of operations and realities on the ground. “Our worst enemy seems to be the press,” President Richard Nixon said during the war.
Relations between the military and the press have warmed since Vietnam; the presence of embedded journalists with forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq is evidence of this. But there is still a culture of distrust, and at the very least a strong reluctance to talk to reporters among members of the military. Recent examples like Michael Hastings’ profile on Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone don’t encourage military members to overcome these stigmas and open up to reporters.
Hastings’ article, The Runaway General, included controversial quotes attributed to McChrsytal and his staff about the Obama administration. In the wake of the article’s publication and the controversy it generated, McChrystal stepped down from his Afghanistan command – his military career was over.
Gen. McChrystal later claimed that he was unfairly represented by Hastings. “The account that that reporter produced was very different from my interpretation of events or the nature of my staff, who I have extraordinary regard for,” McChrystal said in a 2013 interview with Fox News. “But listen, I was a commander, when you’re in command, whether you like the outcome or not, you accept responsibility. And that’s what I did.”
The military tightened its rules concerning interactions between officers and journalists in the fallout over the McChrystal interview and his subsequent resignation.
Although there are echoes of Vietnam in the contemporary distrust of the press, the real concern in the military is that news organizations will publish anything to make a splash and improve their ratings or circulation, no matter how many lives are on the line or to what degree national security is compromised. They point to stories like the outing of the Pakistani doctor who helped find Osama Bin Laden, the revelation of a CIA operation to stop an underwear bomber in Yemen, or the exposure of the STUXNET virus attack against Iran. All of these stories involve classified material leaked to the press.
Other examples not involving classified material include the accidental burning of Korans at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan and media attention surrounding the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. These stories were important, and the coverage they received was probably appropriate, but members of the military feel the consequences of these stories in the form of violent reprisals, attacks and friends wounded or killed in action. And when looking for a culprit for the inflamed animosity of the enemy, the press is an easy target.
You are also working against a schism that has opened up between U.S. military and civilian societies in recent years. In many ways, the military’s distrust toward the media is a manifestation of its members’ distrust of civilian society in general, and a feeling that people back home don’t understand the reality of combat and military life.
The military represents less than 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. Less than 8 percent of the U.S. population has served in the armed forces and only one in five members of the U.S. House and Senate is a veteran, compared with three out of every four in 1969 – the lowest level since World War II.
This divide is an obstacle to overcome in your reporting on the military, but it is also the most important reason that your reporting needs to be accurate and impactful.
The limited participation of the population in the armed forces, the physical remoteness of the battlefield and the technological advances in war fighting technology have made war largely an abstract cost to the American people.
In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, “Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally.”
It is the responsibility of journalists to make the cost of war real and relevant to people’s insulated lives. We have to make war personal.
They won’t talk to you unless they have something to gain
After a televised interview with Sam Donaldson following the Iran-Contra scandal, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked how he did. “General,” Donaldson replied, “when you are with the press, you are the only one at risk. I can never lose.”
There are countless reasons for someone in the military to not talk to you, and very few for them to trust you. Because of this, there are really only three reasons that someone in the military will open up:
- They trust you
- They have been ordered to talk to you
- They are going to use you for their benefit.
If you’re interviewing an enlisted member or a low-ranking officer, his or her biggest concern is to stay out of trouble. There are a lot of rules about what military members can and cannot say while representing their branch of the armed forces, and most are terrified of unknowingly breaking a rule that could affect their career or worse. Educate yourself about the protocol for interviewing members of the military. It is up to you to know their rules. And if the young man or woman in uniform seems evasive or uncooperative, understand that he or she is likely just unsure of whether he or she is allowed to answer your question.
If you want to talk to someone, either at home or at a deployed location, you will have to work through the public affairs office of that base or unit. Public affairs officers and enlisted members are trained in offering interviews and press releases that are carefully scripted to reflect military and political talking points, and they are also the gatekeepers between you and anyone else you want to interview. So get to know that system. You can work it, but it takes finesse and experience.
If you’re dealing with the Pentagon or a high-ranking officer, it’s a different story. Instead of your interview subject just toeing the line to not land in hot water, you are dealing with someone who often wants to use you as a mouthpiece for addressing multiple audiences, including the enemy. Your reporting just became a weapon of war.
According to Powell, whenever he talked to the press as a military officer, he was speaking to five audiences:
- The reporter asking the questions
- The American people who are watching and listening
- Political and military leaders in more than 190 foreign capitals
- The enemy
- The troops.
When you are interviewing a commanding officer, recognize that he or she is speaking to these five audiences. Understanding this will help you to find a balance between asking thoughtful questions to inform the American people while respecting the operational necessities and moral obligations of commanders charged with the safety of America’s men and women in uniform.
A dumb question might be one that asks for sensitive information that could aid the enemy. Asking a commander, for example, to detail troop movements prior to an assault or asking about weaknesses in security at a U.S. base would compromise the safety of U.S forces. Also, subjective questions such as “how is the morale of the troops?” and “what do you think of your prospects for victory” are questions that are only going to get one answer from any commander—“excellent”. Remember, they are speaking to both the enemy and their own troops, so they will never concede that things are going poorly.
Ask questions about topics that Americans need to know. More relevant questions could include explanations about the intended outcome of an operation, collateral damage prevention, the state of affairs between military and civilian command and control, and coordination between the State Department and the Pentagon (there is always conflict between diplomatic efforts and military operations). It is important to determine whether troops are being led competently in an operation with a clear mission and political objectives.
Get smart to ask the right questions
Carl Von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian military theorist, said, “War is politics by other means.”
Covering the military is much more complicated than just uncovering how many troops are deployed, how many enemy are killed or who is doing what and where. War is a complicated opera of politics, cultural clashes and human drama. To help close that civilian/military divide you have to make war real to people who will never get any closer to combat than playing Call of Duty.
In order to do this you need to ask sophisticated questions that probe the deeper issues that go beyond talking points. Drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa are examples of a sensitive issue that requires answers to questions such as: What are the rules of engagement for drones to prevent collateral damage? What is the protocol for attacking a U.S. citizen abroad? What is the training for drone pilots? Is it wise for the CIA to operate its own drone fleet separate from the perview of the Department of Defense?
Unfortunately for journalists, there is such a thing as a dumb question. A famous Saturday Night Live skit from Operation Desert Storm lampooned the ridiculous questions of reporters covering the war. “What time of day are you going to attack?” one SNL reporter asks. “Are we planning an amphibious invasion of Kuwait, and if so, where exactly will that be?” asks another.
The media’s reputation took a hit from the embarrassing news conferences at the Pentagon during Operation Desert Storm. Henry Allen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, wrote in The Washington Post in 1991, “The Persian Gulf press briefings are making reporters look like fools, nitpickers and egomaniacs . . . dinner party commandos, slouching inquisitors, college-spitball artists . . . a whining, self-righteous, upper- middle-class mob….”
Inappropriate and unintelligent questions by journalists deepen the divide between the military and the press and reinforce stereotypes. An editorial in the Jacksonville, Fla., Times-Union during Desert Storm raised a good point: “Why does a farmer in Nebraska or a cabbie in Manhattan need to know exactly how many A-10 Thunderbolts are stationed northwest of Jubayl?”
To explain why a citizen needs to know about A-10s, find out what the purpose of an A-10 is in combat, if the airman had adequate training prior to deployment and if the appropriate search and rescue assets are in theater if the pilot were to be shot down behind enemy lines. Explain the combat role of an A-10, how many pilots it carries, the types of weapons it has and at what bases it is stationed in the United States.
There is a need to inform the public about what their government is doing on its behalf, especially when it comes to military force. Your reporting is not only an opportunity to educate yourself about military capabilities and organization, but it is a chance to educate your audience as well. Referring to the media’s coverage of Desert Storm, Walter Cronkite said, “The press has failed to make clear the public’s stake in the matter.”
Be conversant in military rank, jargon or organization
During my first few weeks as a journalism student at Northwestern University’s Medill School , a young journalist asked me if I had “caught PTSD” while deployed as a special operations pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq. In another interview with a Medill student, I was asked to explain what a squadron was and what the difference is between officers and enlisted personnel. It is understandable for people with no personal or family connection to the military to not be fully conversant in military rank, jargon or organization. But these types of questions provoke someone in the military to not take an interview or an interviewer seriously.
A good rule of thumb is to never ask a question when you could find the easy answer on Google or Wikipedia. Remember that it took a leap of faith for that military member to talk to you; don’t squander the opportunity with shallow questioning.
It should be noted that bad questions are not limited to young reporters or journalism students. After 9/11 attack, Pentagon officials were peppered with questions about when and where the invasion of Afghanistan would commence. These types of questions demonstrate ignorance to the multiple audiences that Powell said military commanders are actually addressing when talking to the press.
More valuable questions to the American people might include whether or not National Guard units will be called into active service, what are the metrics for mission success, how will victory be defined and under what terms would an enemy surrender be accepted? Questions like these address the information needs of the American people and respect the operational constraints of military leaders to divulge sensitive information while also providing an opportunity to effectively address their five audiences.
Avoid speculative questions about hypothetical scenarios in the future. If you read through Powell’s rules for talking to the press, (see column on the right) you’ll notice that he mentions several times to not respond to these types of questions. During the opening days of the Afghanistan War I remember defense officials becoming frustrated by constant hypothetical questions from reporters such as: “Could Afghan civilians confuse unexploded cluster munitions for propaganda leaflets?”
If there are reports that civilians have been killed by unexploded ordinance because they thought it was a leaflet, then okay, that’s fair game. Remember that these men and women are not politicians; they are operators and leaders concerned with getting a job done as safely as possible. If you ask hypothetical questions that compromise their effectiveness to accomplish the mission, you are wasting their time.
Remember the five audiences military leaders are speaking to and ask questions that are appropriate for all of those audiences. Again, examples of appropriate questions might include an explanation of the rules of engagement, what measures are being taken to reduce collateral damage and what the metrics are for victory. It is important for both you and your audience to understand the larger geopolitical context that encompasses any military operation. Good questions involve more than detailing troop movements and statistics.
Journalists have a unique duty to perform in democracies that field all-volunteer military forces — to educate citizens about the costs of war.