It’s politics when a candidate disparages “the media.” But it’s potentially dangerous when the commander in chief tells U.S. troops not to trust the reporters who cover them.
If you’re a soldier -- say, an elite U.S. special operator at U.S. Central Command headquarters, maybe with some battle buddies from U.S. Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command -- answer me this: When your commanding general tells you that the reporters covering your work are important and he makes a public effort to engage, educate, bring them along to war zones and build trust with the press corps, but your commander-in-chief says those same reporters are “dishonest,” and accuses them of purposefully ignoring terrorism (and by extension ignoring your hard, life-sacrificing work to fight terrorism) for some wink-and-nod agenda of their own, whom should you believe?
The media -- that’s me, hi -- is accustomed to being a punching bag for politicians. Most of us wear their complaints like combat badges. One of my earliest mentors, Mark Feldstein, an award-winning former CNN and ABC News reporter who runs the broadcast journalism program at the University of Maryland, has this in the second line of his biography: “On assignment, he was beaten up, subpoenaed, and sued in the US; detained and censored by government authorities in Egypt; and escorted out of the country under armed guard in Haiti.”
When Donald Trump talked about the “dishonest media” on the campaign trail, I didn’t speak up much because a) we’re taught that we journalists are not the story, and b) it was just politics. Even by inauguration day, the new president’s quip was just an annoyance.
But when the newly minted commander-in-chief said it at CIA headquarters, it began to get worrying. And something changed for good on Monday when Trump traveled to Tampa. For the first time, he stood in front of CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel and SOCOM commander Gen. Tony Thomas -- perhaps the two most important generals in the U.S. military today -- and their teams. On camera, Trump praised the forces for fighting secret missions every day, and pledged to give them all the equipment and support they need to turn back the spreading threat of terrorism. Then he said this: “It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported and, in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.” Wink. Nod.
With respect, sir, that’s not true. And I hope the men, women, officers, civilians, and whomever else was in that room don’t believe it. I certainly don’t think Gen. Votel does.
The defense/military/national security press corps is in many ways a different breed of journalists, with a different — and I’ll argue, heavier — burden of responsibilities. We cover war. We must inform the public, but we also must be careful not to get anyone killed. And military commanders and grunts alike remind us of that.
Last year, special operations leaders bristled that some reporting used names, units, and mission details that revealed identities and other sensitivities putting elite U.S. troops at risk. Gen. Thomas, at a March 2016 press briefing in Tampa the day he took command of SOCOM, said, “I'd offer while our operations are necessarily secret, we are absolutely committed to the accountability we have to the American people and the president of the United States. So there's a balance there, and certainly the American public have a need to know what we're doing and that we're doing it in the right way, and consistent with American values. So we accept that that's a challenge in terms of information, but as Gen. Votel mentioned, I think where we do have concerns is where it starts to imperil the tactics and techniques that we employ, and more importantly, the people involved. We've had a rash of true-name disclosures here recently, which I don't see serving any purpose other than to put those people in jeopardy.”
Neither do I. During that period, sources told me they were angry at the offending reporter and all reporters, and I don’t blame them. At the same press briefing where Thomas and Votel acknowledged the importance of the public’s right to know, I hurt my own case for trust. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford was upset that I asked him a question about then-candidate Trump’s comment that NATO was “obsolete.” Dunford didn’t want to be pitted against his potential future commander in chief, rightfully. I didn’t realize Dunford was unaware I was asking him about Trump. It was a costly miscommunication. The chairman and his staff lodged his complaint, I responded, we talked, and moved on to do our jobs.
The U.S. military works with hundreds of reporters from global TV networks to niche magazines and bloggers doing their jobs every day. In our jobs, we interview American and foreign allied troops on their way to die and we talk to their mothers when they return home in caskets. We travel with and talk to the experienced Joint Chiefs and the newest Marines out of boot camp. We fly onto aircraft carriers and into forward operating bases, and then to bespoke-suited NATO meetings of top European defense ministers -- often in the same week. Generals, admirals, and service secretaries trust us enough to take us into dangerous places where there are secrecy rules to keep us all safe. They give us briefings and speak to us, often privately, to make sure we are getting the story right or that they are at least getting their version of the story heard. Some of us have been shot at, blown up, and killed, alongside the servicemen and -women we are covering, and some are still going back into the war zones to keep reporting. They have earned the respect and admiration of troops of all ranks.
Not everyone is a war reporter, but most of those who report on the military understand the magnitude of our profession and the importance of the people we’re covering. The truth matters, whether we’re trying to understand what went wrong with an operation like the recent Yemen raid, or whether taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely on hundred-billion-dollar F-35 fighters. It matters, whether the topic is why appointed officials decide to deploy American troops into Iraq and Syria, what generals and admirals think of their adversaries in Iran or China, whether they are, in fact, taking care of the troops and their families from the day they enlist to the day they die as veterans, through adequate pay and benefits. This is a serious calling with serious repercussions.
Journalists arriving on this beat find it takes a few years of source-building and practice just to get to know the enormous military, much less earn the kind of trust that leads senior leaders to talk to the public through your pen or camera when the news really hits.
The door swings both ways. As junior commanders become senior commanders, they learn to interact with reporters, building relationships and even friendships with them. It’s true for base commanders in small towns or division commanders in desert war zones. That’s why there are thousands of U.S. troops who serve in the military as public affairs officers. Veteran reporters have seen all types come up through the ranks. There are the media-friendly ones who “get it” and work with us (or use us) to their benefit and the public’s, and then there are those who come in (understandably) wary of the press and skeptical that any interaction could possibly be to their benefit. Some are just not comfortable with cameras or talking out of line with their civilian leadership, as they’re trained.
They (and Trump) inherited Obama’s war, which remains a largely secretive fight using elite special operators, intelligence officers, and private military contractors working an insane operational tempo. What was meant to be a way to keep the U.S. out of a large ground war became a perpetual secret mission. Few Americans know the extent of U.S. military and special operations intervention in that region stretching from Nigeria to Yemen and Syria. Except in this war, YouTube gets a vote. American forces are showing up on social media and foreign press more than they want. The entire war on terrorism is challenging the idea that every SOF warrior is a silent warrior when the mission is right there on TV for all to see, or veteran SEALs write tell-all books or open their mouths. It’s just not reality.
Votel and Thomas said they want a better result with minimal risk. So do we. Nobody wants a Geraldo Rivera moment, drawing troops movements in the sand on live TV. Everyone wants to tell a better story.
Trump, with one backhanded comment, endangered both the journalists and military leaders trying to build trust with one another. The next time a reporter hops on the back of a V-22 Osprey to a downrange base, what will the Marines on that flight be thinking? The next time a Special Forces soldier ends up in a firefight with a reporter in tow, what will that reporter be thinking? The next time an Abu Ghraib or My Lai incident occurs, will either side find the courage to trust each other to tell the uncomfortable truths that must be told?
Trump uses the “dishonest media” line to his advantage well, as a candidate and political party leader. But as commander-in-chief to soldiers from age 18 on up, his words become marching orders. I hope they’ll be taken in context with what some other military leaders have said about the importance of the press to their missions and to democracy.
The day after Trump spoke in Tampa, Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff and top general of the Air Force, met with defense reporters at a regular breakfast roundtable in Washington. The first words out of his mouth were, “Well, first of all, let me just say thanks a lot for not only spending some time with me this morning talking about our Air Force, but also thanks honestly for what each of you do as well every day.”
When the New York Times’ Michael Gordon asked the general for his comments on Trump’s “dishonest” line and support from military voters, Goldfein said, “Yes, you know, this is a great opportunity, I think, just to step back and remind ourselves and the American people the oath we take as members of the military, the oath we take and we retake every time we are promoted, to support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. We actually don’t, by design, pledge support to any particular party or any particular leader.”
“So, I won’t comment particularly on the president’s comments, but just that is the way I see my responsibility.”
Here’s what two other defense leaders have said about the media:
Gen. Martin Dempsey, former Joint Chiefs Chairman, at the National Press Club in 2012, said: “Yours is a profession I respect, just as I know you respect my profession, the profession of arms. I’m sure you would agree that our professions are both built on trust -- trust that has to be earned over time through the forging of relationships.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in 2013, at his final briefing as defense secretary, said: “What I wanted to do was to come down and use this opportunity to, first of all, thank you all, all of you that are part of the press corps here and the press in general. Throughout my 50 years in public service, I have always believed -- believed very deeply in the role of the press, because I believe deeply in the role of the American people in our democracy. Information is a key to an informed electorate. And while we may or may not agree with every story, in the grand scheme of things, because of the work of the press, I believe the truth always comes out.”
But I’ll leave the final word to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in his final briefing in June 2011, said:
“But since this will be my final press conference as secretary of defense, I would actually like to take this opportunity to say a few words to the Pentagon press corps. And don't worry -- it's all good. These past few weeks have truly been the long goodbye, particularly for the traveling press, so I'll keep it short.
Even though I had held senior jobs in the U.S. government and was president of a major university, before becoming secretary of defense, I had never had sustained a regular on-the-record interaction with the news media. When I first took office, I worried that relations between the Pentagon, the military and the press, while always difficult, were mostly characterized by mutual suspicion and resentment. So I made it a point when speaking to military officers, from cadets to generals, to remind them that a vigorous, inquisitive and even skeptical press was a critically important guarantor of the -- of freedom under the Constitution and not to be treated as the enemy.
I gained even more of an appreciation for the important accountability role of the press early in my tenure when newspaper reports exposed two glaring bureaucratic shortcomings, in the outpatient treatment of wounded warriors at Walter Reed and resistance to purchasing life-saving MRAPs for troops downrange. Responding to both of these critical issues, which only came to my attention through the media, became my top priority and two of my earliest and most significant management decisions.
Over the past four and a half years, I have not always liked what I read, and like anyone else in government, I hate leaks, maybe more than most. But I have great respect for your role as a watchdog on behalf of the American people and as a means for me to learn of problems that the building was not telling me about.
I know we don't always make it easy to do your jobs here. Gaining timely and usable information out of the bureaucracy and their gatekeepers is always a challenge, a challenge that I've shared with you on occasion. So thanks again for your professionalism, tough questions and hard work.”