When Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last July he would tighten the rules on engagement with media, a long-time dispute resurfaced: to what extent should the military be open to the media?
Gates’ memo requires approval by his Public Affairs office before any military or Defense Department officials can give interviews that may have “national or international implications.”
And many journalists have not been happy with the Pentagon’s raised guard on media engagement.
During an interview with PBS NewsHour on July 8th, Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said:
All we’re asking for is, when something rises above one’s individual area of responsibility, that we eventually get visibility on it, … because the reality is, somebody speaks to one thing that they may know about, but it (may) have a ripple effect throughout the rest of our operations, including decisions that are being made in the NSC (National Security Council) or within our department or across the river in other departments.
Christopher Hanson, Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said this will have a chilling effect on access to military officials and information.
“There will be a bottleneck in the Pentagon where these requests for interviews will be sitting,” Hanson said in an interview. “The public will end up getting less information that it needs.”
But the Pentagon’s senior Public Affairs official, Assistant Secretary Douglas B. Wilson, defended the new policy at a panel discussion (Oct. 29) sponsored by the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative
Wilson said the new guidelines are not intended to draw an “Iron Curtain” against the media, but rather to alert Pentagon insiders and ensure that when they deal with media “[they] know of what [they] speak and find out what [they] don’t know.”
“Hopefully this memo has not had any discernable effect on how the media works,” Wilson said.
At the panel discussion, journalists also raised concerns about government agencies giving “on-background” interviews more frequently than before. “On-background” means that reporters can use the quotes but may not attribute them to the speaker by name, instead using phrases like “senior defense official.” For example, during the recent confusion about court rulings that affected the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue, the Pentagon held a background briefing with a senior official but did not allow his name to be used.
“The bottom line is (they say) the issue is too controversial, but that excuse is (used) for any number of briefings,” said Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times’ Pentagon correspondent, during the discussion.
In response, Wilson said the Pentagon has a dual responsibility: to be as transparent and timely as possible with the media, but also to ensure security of the men and women in uniform.
“It’s a hard tight rope to walk, but we walk it,” Wilson said.
The military and the media have long had a love -hate relationship or “a dysfunctional marriage,” as Thom Shanker, a Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, calls it.
“It’s a dysfunctional marriage at times—to be sure—but we stay together for the kids” Shanker said during an interview with Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling in a Military Review article in 2009. Shanker explained that military “kids” are the soldiers and the media’s “kids” are its audience.
Maj. Kirk Luedeke, a senior Army press liaison, that illustrated Shanker’s point. As a brigade public affairs officer, Luedeke was once on a vehicle with a group of young soldiers in Baghdad who were talking about live in the war zone. The staff sergeant who was the vehicle commander said: “Shh, we have media in the vehicle.” Luedeke had to explain to the soldiers that he was one of them, and not “the media.”
“It reminded me that as much work as we had put into training our soldiers about media awareness, we still have a long way to go,” he said. “There’s a disconnect [between the soldiers and the media].”
In the magazine interview, Shanker said trust is the key to making this “dysfunctional” relationship work, particularly in the war zones.
“In the information age, the first casualty of war is trust,” he said, “trust between those who fight the wars and those whose job it is to report them.”