The Vietnam War and the Walter Cronkite legend inculcated a strong distrust of the media in the military establishment. The sentiment is that if the press can lose America’s wars, it is something to be dealt with warily, if at all. But what comes across as bias is often the product of structural and unavoidable aspects of reporting. The primary role of the press is to expose and publicize information, while the military norm, based on the need for operational security, is to withhold and control information. General William T. Sherman stated this explicitly when he ejected Florus Plympton of the Cincinnati Commercial from his command in 1862. When the reporter protested that he had come only to learn the truth, Sherman replied, “We don’t want the truth told about things here. We don’t want the enemy any better informed that he is.”
For their part, journalists consider themselves watchdogs of the government, the presumptive “fourth estate,” a necessary check on government power. This view lends a natural adversarial quality to reporting on the government. There is a working assumption that the government has something to hide and that every public statement emanating from official sources should not be taken at face value. Members of the military, on the other hand, have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States and are instruments of government power. So while the journalistic ethic is one of “question authority,” the military equivalent is “salute smartly.”
The two groups have different perspectives on trust. A reporter is skeptical, probing, seeking to tease out information that the subject may not want known, and will say whatever he needs to say to get the scoop. But troops have to be able to trust one another instantly; it is vital to the conduct of operations. Hence the military expression “hand-con,” knowing with a handshake that things are going to get done and that everyone is on the same team.
Journalists hold sacred the notion that their work is objective, which at the very least means that the reporter will attempt to report a story from a variety of points of view. In theory, the reporter does not take sides. Members of the military, on the other hand, are not objective - but mission-oriented and know what side they are on. … The frustration that members of the military feel with press objectivity was summed up by CINCPAC Admiral Harry Felt in late 1962, when he was introduced to AP chief correspondent for Indochina Malcolm W. Browne. “So you’re Browne,” the Admiral said. “Why don’t you get on the team?”
At an Oct. 31, 1987, roundtable discussion of military ethics at Harvard University, moderator Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr., asked ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes” if they would warn U.S. troops about to be ambushed by the enemy in a hypothetical war between the U.S. and “North Kosan.” Jennings originally responded, “If I was with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans.” But Wallace clucked that he and other reporters would “regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover,” and stated, “I’m a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story.”
“Don’t you have a higher duty as an American citizen,” Ogletree asked, “to do all you can to save the lives of soldiers rather than this journalistic ethic of reporting fact?”
“No,” Wallace responded, “you don’t have higher duty … you’re a reporter.”
“I think he’s right too,” Jennings said. “I chickened out.” When challenged by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft that “you’re Americans first, and you’re journalists second,” Wallace asked, “What in the world is wrong with photographing this attack by North Kosanese on American soldiers?”
In October 2001, Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor of National Public Radio, who had been on one of the last helicopters out of the Saigon embassy compound before it was seized by the North Vietnamese in 1975, stated that his reporters were seeking and would report on American troops engaging in covert operations to find the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. In response to the critics of this potential breach of security, Jenkins stated, “I don’t represent the government. I represent history, information, what happened.” He dismissed those who objected by saying, “They all blame the press for losing the war in Vietnam,” a fairly simplistic analysis on his part, which has the benefit of being true. Similar attitudes are common in the cohort of the press corps that came of age during the Vietnam era, and are reflected in the attitudes of many members of the military, who at times consider reporters akin to traitors.
The relationship between the press and the military need not always be adversarial. … Ernie Pyle was a legendary and beloved World War II journalist who lived with the soldiers he covered and, on the island of Ie Shima off Okinawa, died with them. Joe Galloway flew into the Ia Drang Valley with the 1st Cavalry Division and risked his life along with the rest of his command. He believed a closer relationship between the military and the press can be beneficial for both. “I am here to argue for more openness, more contact, more freedom between your profession and mine,” he said at an appearance at the U.S. Air Force’s Air War College in 1996. “In this one instance I believe familiarity would breed not contempt but trust and respect.” He recommended embedding reporters with troops and stated that … “in the end 99 percent of the coverage that flows from this experience will be entirely positive. …”
Critics of embedding and building trust between the two camps see the practice as a threat to the norm of objectivity. Reporter Jonathan Alter called embedding “subtly coercive,” since it engenders loyalty between the reporter and the soldiers he is covering. It introduces the paradox that those closest to the action and thus best informed will lack “objectivity” to report on it; that those who have lived an event are less qualified than outsiders to comment on it. It devalues the respect and admiration that a reporter might feel for America fighting forces once he has shared their hardships and seen them in action. These feelings could be more objective based on experience than the theoretical objectivity that casts both the United States and its enemies as morally equivalent. In short, a reporter in pursuit of the abstract norm of objectivity is less objective than those who are able to test their perspectives against experience. Reality informs the human condition more reliably than theory. One seldom hears negatives about Ernie Pyle.
Excerpted from ‘This Time We Win‘ by James S. Robbins