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Naval Officers’ Internal Emails Show Attitudes Toward Press

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A few days later, a public-affairs officer wrote that the “film/podcast is garbage journalism at best.” It’s not clear whether he was referring to the POGO podcast that was linked in the email or to the forthcoming Reveal podcast I’d told him I was pursuing.

I called Nicole to tell her about the email.

“Because I have now been on so many outlets, so many news articles, they’re desensitized to the pain of a widow and to boys who will never have their biological father back,” she said. “So it makes it easier, frankly, [to think,] She’s trying to make herself some kind of celebrity, to use her husband’s death to her advantage. That is the part that makes me really sad about the leadership of the Navy, and really fucking angry.”

When I told Grazier about the email, he questioned why the Navy would resort to smearing those who try to point out problems.

“That’s quite interesting considering that my contribution to this story was an interview with a widow of a pilot who was killed,” he said.

Regarding the email deriding Hixenbaugh as someone on an “anti-military crusade,” Nicole Van Dorn said, “It’s an attempt to transfer blame.”

“Which came first?” Nicole asked. “The issues that are plaguing the military, or Mike observing and publishing them?”

Hixenbaugh, who was one of the Investigative Reporting Program’s reporting partners for our ongoing coverage of the Sea Dragon and a fellow at our organization, is now a journalist for the Houston Chronicle. There, his Hurricane Harvey coverage helped the Chronicle become a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He began covering the military beat at The Virginian-Pilot in 2012. He told me he never regarded his—or our—coverage of the Sea Dragon as anti-military.

“Too often, I feel like they’re out there protecting the Navy’s interests or flag officers or protecting individual officers rather than just being honest brokers of the truth,” he said of public-affairs staff.

Retired Air Force Colonel Don Christensen agrees. The problem, he told me, is that those public-affairs officers work for commanders who, rather than the truth, prioritize self-preservation.

“It’s always defensive. It’s never self-reflective. They will never admit that they did something wrong, no matter what the evidence is,” he said.

Christensen was chief prosecutor for the Air Force, but he left the military frustrated after he saw a conviction in an officer’s sexual-assault case get thrown out by the officer’s commanding general. He’s now the president of Protect Our Defenders, a human-rights organization that focuses on sexual assault in the military.

The wagon-circling that Christensen and the other military reporters we’ve spoken with have encountered may help a handful of senior officers and other powerful interests, but it often does little for ordinary troops. And it hurts the military’s standing with the public.

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