Friday, September 17, 2004


Why Is It So Hard To Understand?

The Air Force photo below was linked by Jonah Goldberg in the Corner, who received a good email from another Air Force officer (just proving once again that Big Blue has too much time on its hands!).

The unknown emailer tells Jonah about his big gripe, how so many in the media are simply clueless about military life-- either the important details, or the mundane bits of daily life.

I'd feel a bit better if the so-called "military correspondents" could learn the difference between self-propelled artillery and tanks. . . The press tries to hire science reporters with some science background to help explain stories to the non-scientist public, but when it comes to covering those of us sworn to defend the nation, the media organizations send reporters who couldn't readily identify an A-10 and an F-15 if they were standing next to them. Nor do those reporters seem to care to research the issues beforehand. After all, they could learn most of what they wanted to know just by going online and reading the fact sheets from the service Web pages.
This is all painfully true, especially for most MSM military correspondents. In my job I spend most of my time dealing with the trade press (i.e., your Jane's and Aviation Week crowd), and for the most part, they know their business well, or at least demonstrate the appropriate level of curiosity.

However, when we talk to a military "expert" from organizations such as the Associated Press, New York Times, or heaven forbid, a broadcast network, we often find ourselves spending more time explaining how a jet engine works or how the pointy end of the rocket goes up than we do explaining the details of the story they are trying to cover. Given the "prep time" it takes to achieve even this basic level of knowledge, it's no surprise that many reporters simply ignore the research, and report what they want without bothering to get the simple facts right.

That said, the level of detail found in a basic wire story isn't a whole heck of a lot, so I don't see why they can't be bothered with simply asking people what X or Y means. Hell, pick up a book, or watch Discovery Wings for a month or so, and you'll start to pick it up. Being an armchair general does not qualify a reporter to be a real general, but it's much better than being an armchair ignoramus. Such basic steps, however, assume a curiousity, a desire to improve their knowledge of the subjects they report on, which simply doesn't appear to exist in far too many reporters assigned to cover military matters.

I can spend an entire day listing my favorite "stupid mistakes" on the part of military correspondents. Here are few of the most common:

-- Getting ranks wrong, especially confusing enlisted with officers (you can forget about understanding NCO's)
-- Getting unit sizes wrong. Platoons become companies, battalions become brigades. All. The. Time.
-- Misidentifying vehicles and aircraft. Rookie mistakes, as all you need is a ten-dollar flip-book.
-- Misunderstanding basic tactics. Everybody seems to think soldiers fight like Rambo. Explaining combined arms to some reporters feels like teaching a squirrel art appreciation.
-- Misunderstanding basic operations. Every pause is a quagmire, every redeployment is a retreat.
-- Ignoring military history. Every war is seen the lens of either World War II or Vietnam.
-- Failure to understand the differences between services. Calling Marines "soldiers" is always a crowd pleaser, as this often leads to a nasty brawl.

. . . and so on, and so on.

Now, I'm no expert on military affairs. I've learned enough over the years to realize I am always learning more. I've never served, so many of the experiences shared by the men and women in uniform can be alien to me, at least until they're explained.

However, in order to appreciate how little I actually do know, I had to spend over a decade in academic, professional, and personal study of warfare and military affairs. I've finally reached the point where I feel that, even if I don't know all the answers, at least I am prepared to ask the right questions.

Joe or Jane Reporter who gets promoted from the crime desk to cover the war in Iraq hasn't reached that point, and probably never will, because they likely love being a reporter first, and a military expert second. It's a fact of life, I guess, but of all people, I would hope that a reporter will understand the benefit of being a jack-of-all-trades, of being both intellectually curious AND intellectually competent.

Anyways, before I get off my soapbox, I'll relate to you, the readers, what I tell my people every time I get them ready to talk to a congressional staffer or a magazine reporter: Pretend you're explaining your job to your parents. It's always safe to assume that these people are NOT experts until proven otherwise. Using military jargon and techno-speak may make you feel cool and superior, but in the end, it just leads to bad understanding, and sloppy coverage. Everyone in DoD who talks to the media needs to understand that their job is not to show off, but to impart knowledge, and build trust.

In the end, the reporting may still be unfair-- but at least then, you'll know it's the reporter's fault, and not our own.

I find myself amazed time after time at the ignorance of reporters on military matters, and this goes way back to the early 1980's when I started paying attention to the news. I've lost track of how many F-16's and F-15's have taken off from carriers.

There are alot of ex-military members with journalistic skills out there, why they aren't hired by MSM is odd. Maybe they want to maintain their left-leaning bent.


Yeah, as I said, it's not too hard to be an "expert." Sure, it takes many years, if not decades, to internalize everything so you grasp at a moment's notice the importance of a military situation.

That said, this stuff is *basic*-- a good reporter should be able to grasp a working knowledge in a couple of days, weeks tops. Yet they don't.

You would want your reporter on SportsCenter to know the difference between a tight end and a defensive lineman-- and if they didn't, you'd ignore everything else they said about football. How is it so radically different to expect the same level of basic competence from our military reporters? *Especially* when war is more important than football (as much as that pains me to say)?

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