War and the Press

A roundtable between Jay DeFrank, Greg Stene, Denny Wilkins and myself.

It begins with Matt Taibbi’s column in New York Press.com this morning: “Cleaning the Pool: The White House Press Corps politely grabs its ankles.” You really need to read this first.

So Dr. Denny Wilkins, our friend and colleague at St. Bonaventure University (no connection to the basketball program, by the way), sends the column along, and it touches off a little exchange involving him, Greg Stene, Col. Jay DeFrank (that’s Dr. Col. DeFrank, actually, Director of Press Operations, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs – in layman’s terms, that makes him director of Media Relations for the Dept. of Defense), and myself. I’ve collated these e-mails into what I hope will be a semi-coherent blog.

Greg: Truly an excellent piece. Representing reality as it is, unfortunately.

We all know the old lines about the press corp not being able to do its job without being punished for too much aggressive reporting. This argument (applied at both presidential and local levels) has been a perennial. But, as much as I hate to say it, no one has come up with a solution to the problem yet. You can’t boycott the prez. No one will stand for that. So we put up with softball questions and let the prez look stupid when he fails to deal with a question.

The real problem for anyone who saw the press conference was the fact that the prez did look stupid. He was not “staying on his talking points,” as so many of the commentators mindlessly spewed that evening in the analyses. If you saw the conference and Bush’s response, you saw, stunned, that he was incapable of answering any question outside his prepared answers. It was not staying on point, it was desperately holding onto a point, no matter how inappropriate, because he could not answer a real question.

If there were any question in any person’s mind about Bush’s inability to really run this administration intelligently, it should have been answered that night. And we should all be very much afraid. This was a spectacle of stupid the likes of which I’ve never seen in a president before.

Denny: The last sentence is the most telling point – “desperately holding onto a point.” Increasingly, given the failure to get UN votes and increasing pressure to hold off on an invasion, I sense … desperation in the administration’s rhetoric.

Desperate leaders should not engage in first-strike thinking. Desperate leaders probably aren’t thinking clearly at all.

Sam: So, Greg, in light of my most recent blog, do I take this observation on your part as a shift in your stance regarding the war? I mean, listen, if the guy can’t answer basic questions, do you really trust him to get something as complicated as the war right?

Just aksin’, is all.

Greg: Who runs the war operations? The military. Not Bush. Do I trust the military? Yes, in terms of military actions, even though I do see chem/biologicals being used and a bad time in the streets of Baghdad. If the American public will stay with it, we can take him out.

However, I do not trust the military to intelligently administer a post-war Iraq. And since there is no real plan stated that seems to be able to take care of the Vietnam-like wars we should expect inside the country when the overall war is finished, I am concerned.

Sam: Nor is there a plan to pay for it, a fact that seems to have Wall Street a bit on edge. But, in your estimation, George Dubya Bush cannot fuck up the military’s ability to get it done?

Fine. In all cases along the path, consider the potential impact of presidential action. I understand that Bush won’t be micromanaging the battlefield, but so much that is critical, pre-war, during the war, and post-war, is his call. Think back a few short years: Stormin’ Norman wanted to finish the job, but Bush the Elder made the call. The powers of the Commander in Chief have not been diminished since then, unless I missed something.

Greg: Is this post-war concern enough to eliminate my support for the war itself? I’m actually wavering now.

Denny: The most significant enemy we, as a public, face is vagueness.

  • What reasons?
  • What costs?
  • What post-war reconstruction?

Given the treatment given the press at Bush’s press conference, we will not get answers to the most basic questions:

How much will it cost and who’s going to pay for it? In lives? In dollars? In credibility?

Jay: Yes, quite unlike my press conferences here [at the Pentagon]. I don’t think anyone who sits where I do could consider the Pentagon press corps “lap dogs.”

I am finding coverage of our media embed plan very interesting though. Media were absolutely howling for access. We provided it by embedding over 500 media with our troops under the most permissive ground rules in decades, if not ever (for perspective, there were 30 in the D-Day invasion, all of whom agreed to total censorship). And, this is only one leg of coverage. The others include being coverage in theater where media who don’t want to make the embed commitment of time and resources can go to the daily briefings and make short-term visits to our forces, and then, there’s coverage from here, both at the Pentagon and in military communities all over the country. All that is in addition to whatever coverage “unilaterals” get.

Still, now that we’re getting some great stories from embedded reporters, we’re being criticized for somehow seducing reporters into bed with us and coopting them by making them dependent on us. Considering that there is no First Amendment right to battlefield coverage, and that it both complicates operational security and has a logistical impact, I feel like we’ve gone the extra mile. In my cynical moods I get the feeling that to many media execs, bureau chiefs and editors the expectation is that military action is a spectacle staged for their benefit and that we should manage it as such.

I could tell you the most amazing stories all day that if I wrote them for a creative writing class would have been handed back with the critique, “not credible.”

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