A Non-PAO Take on That PAO Article – David D. – Medium
Anyone with a pulse and an interest in so-called miltwitter is likely to have had their jimmies rustled this week by the work of one Chase M. Spears, author of the now-infamous “It Takes Two To Tango” article that was published on West Point’s Modern War Institute blog (in keeping with military tradition, I will hereafter refer to this article as IT4). Chase, an Army public affairs officer, pursued a line of argument that suggested that the recent negative media attention around the Pentagon’s record 300+ days without an on-camera press briefing was misplaced — it was journalists who were at least partly to blame for the current state of affairs. An intriguing argument to make, if only it weren’t so poorly made. Indeed, part of the controversy around Chase’s IT4 article stems from the shock that someone of his level of experience would put forth arguments with such obvious blind spots about the very field — media — that Chase is professionally invested in.
The main blind spot seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what constitutes “news” at the national level. Let’s be clear. When Chase talks about the national press corps, I assume he is talking about organizations like the AP, Reuters, New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the big TV channels (cable or otherwise). He calls into question their professional judgement as a whole, and holds up the Covington Catholic and Stormy Daniels stories as Exhibit A. This a bit of a non-sequitur to begin with, because the reporters on the defense/national security beat are not the reporters covering those stories. Media organizations are vast; they contain multitudes.
However, even if they were the same reporters, those two stories are themselves examples of the journalistic profession working as it is supposed to. The Stormy Daniels story not only involved possible campaign finance violations by the president, it also led to the FBI raid on Michael Cohen’s office and his eventual testimony before Congress. Despite Chase’s obvious disdain for Stormy Daniel’s “porn star” status, the story was, by definition, a national-level story. And, while l’affaire Covington Catholic and its Rashomon-esque approach to the truth was more muddled and decidedly less important, the Washington Post and others issued corrections and retractions as the story developed. They got it wrong, and they said so. Are we in the military always so quick to admit our errors?
Of course, neither story is a defense or national security story. Chase laments that, “reporters at the national level appear to have largely given up on covering the military.” And yet I can open up any given paper and instantly find articles related to the recent implementation of the transgender ban, US deployments in the Middle East, budget issues with the F-35, recent congressional hearings on Space Force, and dozens of international issues with military implications (North Korea, Iran, ISIS, China… etc.). The New York Times has an entire section of its website dedicated to covering war and the military experience. Indeed, the recent ProPublica story about the Navy’s destroyer collisions off the coast of Japan is a perfect example of considerable journalistic investment in reporting an important military story.
So what, exactly, is the national-level press corps not covering?
Chase helps us out by identifying some stories he thinks they should focus on: a new Army PME course, a bachelor’s degree for senior NCOs, and a military exercise in the Arctic that involved a whopping 150 paratroopers and less aircraft than your average air show. I’m sorry, but these are not national-level stories, full stop. These are the sort of stories I’d expect in the Army Times, not the New York Times. That’s not to say that those aren’t important developments within certain corners of the military. But the national press is not the sort of arena these stories typically deserve. Why, exactly, would an American citizen reading a paper of record care that some Sergeants Major now have one more way to get bachelor degrees?
Chase also lists stories that — contrary to his protestations — have actually been reported on in the national press, such as US forces training with allies in Europe or what it looks like when a unit gets ready for deployment. And, lo and behold, The New York Times did actually write a story about a different, larger military exercise conducted by NATO in the Arctic within the past month. But is a media outlet expected to cover this every single time it happens? I’m sure individual units and their corresponding PAOs would be thrilled if literally every single deployment was headline news, but that is just not realistic. The world is bigger than the US military, even for defense and national security press. Additionally, it has been my experience that local papers do tend to cover major deployments of units from nearby bases.
And what of Chase’s off-the-cuff quote from the journalist that the Alaskan exercise would be more interesting if it had involved a mass orgy? I mean, knowing how super-exciting most exercises can be, I’m pretty sure some of the exercise’s participants might have agreed. Regardless, the inclusion of the quote seems designed to hit that sweet note of thank-me-for-my-service righteous anger about out-of-touch journalists and their hedonistic swampy talk. That’s a great dog whistle for those of, um, certain political persuasions and media-consumption diets. However, I’m not sure that us in the US military are well-placed to judge the professional conduct of others based on “colorful” informal comments. Let him without sin cast the first stone and all that.
In fact, the inability to distinguish why the stories Chase listed might not important to a national media outlet demonstrates a lack of awareness about the role of the press and the realities of journalism today. Amidst the ever-more brutal financial realities of the current media landscape, reporters for national outlets are attempting to find and report defense stories that are significant and informative. They cannot afford to waste their time on stories that are unnecessary or unimportant. While they don’t always hit that mark, more often than not they do.
However, oftentimes what is important to us as individuals or units is a small part of the actual story, or is hard to understand without context on a national level. Back during the early days of OIF, I remember listening to the constant grumbling among fellow servicemembers about journalists’ decisions to report about frequent car bombings, or Abu Ghraib, or the lack of political progress in Baghdad, instead of the “good news” that US forces had passed out candy/helped build a school/repaired a bridge. Yet journalists weren’t in Iraq to serve merely as tactical stenographers for PAOs — they were there to report the strategic reality of what was going on in-country so that the American people could be better-informed about a costly military intervention they were undertaking. And what was going on at the time was a shit-show. In retrospect this is obvious: no one looks back on Iraq circa 2003–2005 and thinks, “Wow, the media got it so wrong, things were just rosy.” The gap between the story the military wanted told at the time and the story journalists actually told was wide, and history is largely on journalists’ side.
Our impulses are understandable. When we are working hard and making sacrifices at home or abroad, a journalist brushing off our work as “not worth reporting” can feel like a personal attack. However, their decision to pursue whatever line of reporting they want is entirely within their wheelhouse. Chase’s unnamed interlocutor is likely right: by all accounts the decision to stop on-camera press briefings seems to be driven by political pressure. Ditto for on-camera briefings at the State Department or at the White House itself. Whatever you think about the politics of it, the critique isn’t coming out of left field, it is coming from former military officers and PAOs themselves — people like Fred Wellman or retired Adm. James Stavridis. Press briefings should never be some sort of reward the military throws out for journalistic good behavior.
We need our military leaders and PAOs out there talking to the media, telling our story, and letting the chips fall where they may. Chase says he understands this, but his article is troubling for all the indications that he doesn’t.