Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis speaks with reporters before his meet and greet with Oman's Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi at the Pentagon, Friday, July 27, 2018.

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis speaks with reporters before his meet and greet with Oman's Foreign Affairs Minister Yusuf bin Alawi at the Pentagon, Friday, July 27, 2018. DoD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence

War & Peace (Is Not Fake News)

Today, we join in the Boston Globe's day of unity with editorial boards and publishers in support of the #FreePress.

Today, hundreds of U.S. newspapers and media outlets led by the Boston Globe are taking the extraordinary step of writing editorials to push back on President Donald Trump’s deliberate and systematic undermining of American journalism and his assault on truth. On basic facts.

The Globe editorial board quotes John Adams, whose house at Quincy, Mass., still stands a few miles down the road from Boston, saying, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom.”

They are words axiomatic to America, words one would think are a given, words we shouldn’t have to say in the 21st century. But say them we must. Defense One shares these concerns and stands in solidarity with our fellow editors and publishers.

As executive editor of Defense One, I have written several times to express concerns over how President Trump’s divisive rhetoric puts journalists and, potentially, U.S. service members at risk. I wrote that Trump is wrong to stand at political rallies and call American reporters “the enemy of the people,” and he’s wrong to stand at military bases as commander in chief and say or imply the same. The president is undercutting the deliberate, professional efforts of commanders who teach rising military leaders about the value of the free press and how to work with the media. He is sending confusing messages to the lower ranks, many of whom are his ardent supporters. They and their commanders stand in defense — with their lives, if necessary — of all American principles, including the free press and the First Amendment, but their commander in chief does not.

Politics can get heated and journalists have thick skins; it comes with the business. But those who cover national security have a unique beat. To cover wars, reporters often rely on the military to ferry them into combat zones over dangerous terrain in dangerous machines. From aircraft carrier landings to Black Hawk helicopter runs deep into hostile territory or even ground patrols on foot, journalists work side-by-side with American troops who put their own lives at risk by taking unarmed civilians alongside them on risky missions.

Back in Washington, the same trust and risk applies at a different level, where defense and intelligence officials, military service members, and reporters all work for the American public. As public officials do their jobs, the journalists of the defense press corps do theirs, showing truth to power, telling the stories that matter to our audiences, revealing the wrongs they need to know, the celebratory moments they should know, even when officials don’t want the public to know.

Under President Trump, senior military leaders are in such fear of being thrust unwillingly into politics that some of them have stopped speaking to the press at all. Others are being ordered to stay out off camera and out of sight. This is wrong. To remain silent, to keep the public less informed is more dangerous. When truth is silenced, the public is left misinformed by propaganda and information warfare sites operating like the state-run media seen in places like Russia, North Korea, and Iran. With silence, democracy is left defenseless.

The good news is that in the Pentagon and at bases and national security institutions around the country, there are commanders and officials who are trying hard to maintain good-faith relations with the media through Trump’s outbursts and threats, and keep the American public informed. The vast majority of public relations professionals in the military have chosen not to fall in behind the president’s rhetoric. We salute them.  

There’s another quote we’d like to share with the Boston Globe and the president. In his last press briefing in 2011, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican who served eight presidents of both parties, said, “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.”

We agree.