The Actuality of Wartime Journalism

Lisa Dreith, Kelly Merritt, Brandon Matloff



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The Setting
        On February 29, 1996, John Rendon, public relations consultant for the Pentagon
and CIA, made the following comments to an audience of cadets at the U.S Air
Force Academy:
        “I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician…I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives.  In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.”  He then proceeded to remind the cadets of a well remembered scene, “When victorious troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of the first war in the Persian Gulf, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags.  The scene, flashed around the world on television screens, sent the message that U.S. Marines were being welcomed in Kuwait as liberating heroes.”
        Rendon then asked, “Did you ever stop to wonder how the people of Kuwait City,
after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American (flags), and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?”  He paused for effect.  “Well, you now know the answer…That was one of my jobs” (Rampton, Stauber).
        There will always be a game of tug-of-war being played between the government, the military, and the press regarding the information given to the public.  Yet, this game leads to an even deeper level of misguided information when a country enters into combat.  It has often been said that the first casualty of war is the truth. This is true in any country, yet today it seems that this axiom is all too honest.   There are many tactics used by the government in times of war, one of which is propaganda, “the information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation” (Propaganda). The government and military, in times of war, use propaganda and other manipulation tactics in the mainstream media to form the attitudes of the public, and shape the emotions of society toward a certain political issue.  They do this by restricting or managing what specific information is presented to the media and thus what is presented to the public.  These manipulations are paramount to controlling the media, thus altering the perceptions of the public.  This strategy of media manipulation used by the government and military during wartime, a time of duress on the entire country, is harmful to Americans as well as unethical.  The information presented effects the decisions made by the American people.  With incorrect and reconstructed information, Americans are at risk of reacting to certain decisions with the wrong intentions.
            The American public has a right to unfiltered and unaltered information through mass media that is an accurate representation of events happening during war.  This public “right is a right created by the legislature that may be exercised against the government” (Public Right).  The Freedom of Information Act is a clear example of how this right can be exercised by the American people and thus gives them the right to this unfiltered information. 

History of Manipulation Through War
        Over time, the government has continually used their power through the media to
evoke a specific response in society.  “The key principle used by both the Reagan and Bush administrations is that if you can control where and when journalists (particularly TV journalists) can report, you can control the imagery and its emotional impact on the public”(Beelman 16).  One has to wonder where the lines are being drawn regarding the use of media exploitation by the American government.  Furthermore, how do American citizens respond to the basic information that is passed on to society by the government?  Those who value honesty and integrity absorb the information given to them as truthful and use it to form their individual opinions.  The American government and media sources have the responsibility and obligation to not only divulge all vital information that affects the decisions of the American people, but also to deliver that information in an impartial manner.  “From whom, if not from the press, are the American people to get the information on which to base an intelligent decision on the worthiness of a particular issue, or the soundness of their government’s strategies and policies, or the actual conditions on and above the fields of combat?”(Benjamin 4).  Americans depend on mass media to obtain and deliver information on events occurring throughout history, and to report this information back to the community.
            Through the eyes of the journalists that reported it, the Vietnam War was the most accurate and in depth depiction of war that American journalists have reported.  However, many government officials at the time claimed that it was the media who cost the U.S. the Vietnam War.  Originally what was a publicly supported effort of war suddenly became heavily scrutinized under the public’s eyes.  In 1968, there was a sudden shift in the public’s opinion of the war that many blamed on the media; it was said that the media lost the Vietnam War. Some argue that this abrupt change in opinion was due to a false sense of security held by the public.  This was instilled by the sudden government control in the media rather than actual journalists reporting freely (Evanson). Resulting from this sudden change in public opinion and support, the government realized a vital and previously overlooked fact of control: that information is power.  From this point forward, they realized the importance of never allowing the media to effect wartime operations in the same manner.
            Since Vietnam, and the discoveries of a newfound power over the public, the government has refined the tactics used in the manipulation of mass media.  It was once the challenge of journalists to just obtain information without endangering themselves.  Today, the challenge for journalists covering battles has become not only gaining uncensored access to U.S troops and battlefields, but also deciphering between information and disinformation. This task has been made all the more difficult due to constant coverage of news events, advancements in technology, and an increasingly studied aspect of military discipline called Information Operations (Shah).
            Information Operations is the combination of electronic warfare, computer network operations, psychological operations, military deception, and operations security.  It is used to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or effect adversarial human decision making while protecting our own.  This is the reasoning behind all manipulation done by the government and military to the mass media.  The government believes that if they can control the public’s opinions and emotions related to current wars, they can control the public politically, thus supporting the government’s decisions during wartime.  This is not proposing that the public has a right to know information that would endanger the military operations or inform the opposition.  It is simply suggesting that all other information needs to be presented in a truthful manner, and the altering of this information be stopped.  The manipulation of wartime information has grown steadily over the years so as not to only effect wartime approval, but elections and other aspects of media, all of which have several implications that follow (Information Operation).

        Throughout the past several decades the government has accumulated multiple ways for this “reconstruction” of information to take place.

Overloading the Media with Information  
Overloading is generally achieved by providing the public with too much information.  The philosophy behind overloading the media is that if the government floods the public with information, they will deter them from asking questions in the future; “If you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story”(Shah).  This occurs when the military, government and/or media gives the public a large amount of information.  However this information may be skewed with the intention of influencing the public so that they agree with the given information.  In addition, the massive amount of material that is released into the public domain is sometimes slanted and not given in its entirety.  Many of the important implications and facts about a war are left out of the reports.  The hope is that with all the other information given, the public will not think to question that which is left out.

Appeal to Ideology                      
This is the process of appealing to patriotism, pride, and safety.  The appeal to patriotism is present in every media vehicle positioning America as “we” and the enemy as “they”.  The government’s need to emphasize a clear distinction between the two sides of a war persuades the American public to create in their own mind the idea of the enemy.  The more the public thinks of themselves as their own distinguished group, one that is either “doing good” or being harmed, the easier it is for them to justify the actions that are being taken against others, especially during wartime.  In addition, the strategic naming of certain acts, such as the Patriot Act, eases the public into believing that the act is for their own good and brings them a sense of pride.  This manipulates the public through words and takes away from the underlying content and consequences these acts truly intend.  
The use of words is critical to how war is portrayed in the media. Labeling, grouping, and euphemisms all play a vital role in shaping public opinion.  In 1940 the name of the War Department was changed to Department of Defense.  Under Regan’s administration, the MX-Missile was renamed “The Peacekeeper”.  Both are examples of using naming to form a positive image for what otherwise has a negative connotation (Shah).  This type of manipulation through censorship is most apparent in the context of the Iraq War.  From the moment the US was attacked on September 11, 2001, Americans have felt the need to stand strong and support their country.  However, five years later, the public is still using phrases such as “War on Terror” and “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.  These words are carefully chosen in order to evoke a specific response from the public.  This strategically selected phrase will persuade Americans that the war in Iraq is not only justified and appropriate, but should be supported as a necessary measure.

Embedded Journalists
These are journalists that are strategically placed by the military with certain Coalition forces. These journalists are chosen specifically by a military sector that is overseen by the government.  They have all expenses paid for (air travel, housing during the stay, food), are shadowed by military personnel, and are debriefed on specific information.  The strategy of debriefing journalists is used to:

-Filter and manage certain aspects of the information;
-Diminish importance of set backs, while celebrating military success;
-Limit facts and context;
-Spin certain situations in a way to positively uphold the entire message;
-Set the range of topics that could be discussed (Shah).
This provides the military with the means to control the information relayed to the media.  In addition, studies have found that embedded journalists tend to be less objective in their reporting than independent journalists – those that venture to report on their own, with no support from the government (IU study).
Embedded journalists are more likely to use “I” and “we” when reporting about combat in wartime (IU study).  Moreover, independent journalists are looked upon by the government as more suspicious sources of reporting – perhaps not there to support what is happening (Shah).  These independent journalists threaten military personnel’s control over the information given to the public because it is more difficult to control the information passed on by independent journalists.  This gives the military an increased motive to support embedded journalists and therefore better “manage the message” presented to the public.  The information that is received by all embedded journalists is reported to the Central Command, where all military press briefings are held.  This provides an opportunity for screening of all information so as to filter out potentially controversial bits of information, as well as feed altered information into the media via journalists (Shah).  Furthermore, public affairs escorts are assigned as guides to journalists and accompany them into battle.  The quality of this escort is generally less than satisfactory.  Many have been known to abandon the reporter, leading them in a direction away from conflict, and thus limiting what they are able to see and report.  This is just one more way in which the government/military can control what can be seen and reported back home.

Pool Reporting
Pool reporting is limiting the number of selected journalists that are allowed to accompany military or government officials/personnel in certain situations.  There are careful steps that are taken by both government and military officials when choosing a pool of journalists that will be reporting the “truth” of what is happening during war.  The process of choosing embedded journalists can be based on anything from their political stance and writing style, to their reputation with the public and level of influence. The information obtained by the pool reporters during war is then reported back to the rest of the journalists, thus “pooling” the information.  Finally, reports are written using this pool of information.  These pools are reportedly used for the safety of the reporters, so that a limited number are exposed to possible harm; however, the specific reporters chosen, accompanied by intense debriefings, lead to a subjective and biased story.

Paid PR Firms
Public relations firms are hired by the government to promote and sell the war as well as feed stories to the press.  These firms are paid in cash to promote issues that the government feels are important.  This poses a serious problem; if higher powers in our government feel that the US should go to war, or pass a bill, then there should be no need to manipulate society in order to gain public support.  How much truthful information is the public getting through public relations and promotions of certain political issues and actions?  For example, it should be public knowledge that many PR firms were employed by the government to promote the Gulf War.  US congressman Jimmy Hayes of Louisiana proposed the idea that the government of Kuwait funded the promotion of the Gulf War.  It is estimated that as many as 20 PR firms were hired to spur US opinion and drive support for the war.  In addition, it has been found that the Rendon Group received approximately $100,000 a month for media work during wars (Beelman 16).

        Due to the constant manipulations carried out over the past few decades by the government through the media, society has lost track of the truth.  The American people are part of a society that is unable to depend on the media, the main source of information pertaining to political issues.  Americans no longer count on the media to present them with factual, truthful information.
        In January 2003, Princeton Survey Research Associates polled more than 1,200
American citizens.  When asked how many of the September 11th hijackers were Iraqi citizens, the answer to which is zero, only 17 percent answered correctly while 33 percent did not even know enough to answer the question (Pryor).  Many people fear that they do not clearly understand the reasons the U.S. is involved in the Iraqi War.  In addition, others believe that the U.S. is at war because of the attacks on 9/11.  Further, polls indicate that the majority of support for the War in Iraq stems from the erroneous belief that it was Saddam Hussein’s operatives who flew the two planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 (Pryor).  This state of misunderstanding is what many Americans are basing their political and governmental decisions upon.  Because of poll results like these, it has been noted that “The informed public is considerably less hawkish about war with Iraq than the public as a whole.  Those who show themselves to be most knowledgeable about the Iraq situation are significantly less likely to support military action in either removing Saddam from power or disarming Iraq.” (Rampton, Stauber).
This large distinction between reality and public opinion is no accident.  Rather, it is the result of government manipulation of public opinion through the use of mass media. Reiterating falsities helps the current government gain support.  This lack of valid information is what the public is basing their support for war on.  As a society, Americans should base their decisions to support government actions on what is actually occurring; these decisions should be based on the information that individuals have the right to as stated by the Freedom of Information Act: correct information in its entirety that is un-manufactured and straightforward.

        Why does a war need to be sold? War is not a toy, nor is it a matter to be taken lightly.  If the United States is at war, it should be for a reason that society can find just cause for.  It should not be a matter that the Americans need to be persuaded into agreeing with.  The public has the right to truthful information upon which they can make educated decisions.  Manipulation of the information that is being presented to individuals nation wide is a method to sway perceptions and decisions. It is unethical because of the right the American people have, as outlined in the Freedom of Information Act, to accurate information regarding the actions our government is taking.  There should be no need for information alteration if the reason behind war is sufficient.  What needs to be done to prevent this constant increase in altered information by the government?
        There needs to be a more intensive system of checks and balances.  There should
be a committee consisting of representatives from the government, military, and the media all with a coinciding interest in informing the public with truthful information wartime actions.  The main idea is that the US needs to revert back to a form of government that values the public’s truthful opinions rather than the opinions that they have manufactured.  The government should be a reflection of the people’s beliefs and opinions rather than the people’s beliefs and opinions being a reflection of the government.  At present, the government has no accountability if it is proven that they manipulate the information presented to the media.  This creates a situation wherein the government has slowly begun to gain more and more control over the media.
        In addition, there needs to be an increase in access to the battlefield for journalists reporting on war. There should be a requirement to have a representative from the media at every event during wartime or at least have one stationed with every troop.  These could be journalists that are enlisted in the military so they would not pose harm or inconvenience to the troops.  Further, independent reporters should be given more support from not only the government but from local news stations as well.

        "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first
object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

                                                                                                             - Thomas Jefferson
Journalists have the responsibility to give reliable and valid news to the public. The American citizens do not ask for information that will jeopardize armed forces or military objectives.  Rather, they only request that the information given is accurate and truthful.
The government and military use calculated propaganda and manipulation tactics to form public attitudes. The shaping of emotions in a society toward certain political issues is especially apparent during wartime. Overloading the public with information, appeals to ideology, pool reporting, embedded journalists, and paid PR firms hired by the government all contribute to these emotions. If the government, journalists, and public work together to understand and activate the ethical implications of manipulation and the importance of the right of the American people to have access to truthful information during wartime, the country will be united as an informed and educated nation.


Works Cited

Beelman, Maud.  The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism, Coverage
of Terrorism Women and Journalism: International Perspectives, from Nieman
Reports Magazine, Winter 2001, Vol.55, No.4, p.16.
Benjamin, David.  “Censorship in the Gulf.”  Auburn University.  October 2,
2006.  p4.
Evensen, David.  “Information Research Paper:  Ethical Journalism during the
Vietnam War”.  20 Oct. 2006.  
How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf, Center of Media and Democracy;
Publishers of PR Watch.
“Information Operation.”  The Information Warfare Site.  13 Oct. 2006.
“IU study finds that news reports by embedded war correspondents in Iraq were
            objective”.  Indiana University Media Relations.  (30 May 2006) 22 Oct.
Miller, Laura and Rampton, Sheldon.  “The Pentagon’s Information Warrior: Rendon
to Rescue.”  Center for Media and Democracy. October 7, 2006.
“Propaganda.”  1 Dec. 2006 
Pryor, Kane.  “A National State of Confusion” 20 Oct. 2006.
“Public Right.”  1 Dec. 2006. 
Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John.  “How To Sell a War: The Rendon Group
deploys ‘perception management’ in the war on Iraq”.  In These Times. (4
Aug. 2003).  3 Oct. 2006.
Shah, Anup.  “Media Manipulation”.  Mainstream Media.  (17 Apr. 2006)  13 Oct.