New Defense Department Memos Highlight Tenuous Relationship with Media in the Past

Wartime government policies on media relations have often been criticized, including the 1991 ban on filming or photographing the return of those killed in action.

by Matthew L. Schafer

A July 2nd internal memo from the Public Affairs Office at the Department of Defense outlines a new media strategy for the war in Afghanistan.  The memo comes after General Stanley McChrystal’s ouster last month as the leader of operations in Afghanistan.  McChrystal was relieved of his command after embarrassing and disparaging remarks appeared in a Rolling Stone article.

The office hopes the new press strategy outlined in the memo will “put military and civilian initiatives in ongoing, regular, comprehensible, and credible context” for the public.  The Department of Defense strategy has an uphill battle ahead of it as a recent poll by Newsweek showed that over half of all American’s disapprove of President Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan and almost half of Americans believe that the United States is losing the war.

Among the recommendations in the memo written by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Douglas Wilson, the office recommends consistent interaction with the media, regular press briefings, briefings both before and after embedding, and increased use of local media.  The memo also suggested that terms like “win” and “lose” be replaced with “better metrics and measurements of progress.”  It is unclear what those metrics may include.

The newly uncovered memo was issued the same day as a heavily reported memo titled “Interaction with the Media.”  In that memo Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed his frustrations with the armed forces’ dealings with the media.

“I am concerned that the Department has grown lax in how we engage with the media,” Gates wrote.  “We must deal with the media in a manner that safeguards information protected by law.”

The new memos are exemplars of the awkward and sometimes edgy relationship between the media and the government.

Gates signs off reminding top officials that future communication with media should be directed through the Public Affairs Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense.  He also orders that all interviewees must notify the Office of Public Affairs of their contact with the media, writing that the Department of Defense has “far too many people talking to the media outside of channels.”

The new memos are exemplars of the awkward and sometimes edgy relationship between the media and the government.  Media critics have criticized the journalist embedding program, which was used extensively during the beginning of the Iraq War, saying that reporters were too close to the people they were supposed to cover and that the rules for embeds were too strict.

“The danger to the embedding process is that when you are part of the troops that you’re going in with, these are your fellow human beings,” Journalism Professor Robert Thompson told PBS in 2003. “You are being potentially shot at together, and I think there is a sense that you become part of that group in a way that a journalist doesn’t necessarily want to be.”

In a way the most recent memos mark a return to the Department of Defense’s tight military policy established at the beginning of the Iraq war.  In 2001, a memo from the same office that released the July 2nd memo reinforced a 1991 ban on the filming of returning coffins from the theatre.  The ban was later lifted.

“There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or media coverage of, deceased military personnel returning to or departing from Dover AFB or Ramstein AFB, to include interim stops,” the November 2001 memo read.

Despite the restrictions of the past, the Defense Department is arguing that the new press policies will facilitate greater communication between the press and the media.  Indeed, Gates wrote in his July 2nd memo that the goal of the Department of Defense was “to be as open, accessible, and transparent as possible.”  Whether these rules will make the military more transparent, however, remains to be seen.


About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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