Wednesday, June 07, 2006

In Defense of The Press, Part I

The press is currently the favorite whipping-boy among conservative blogs. Alleged botched, slanted, left-leaning coverage is now the leading issue on the right side of the blogosphere, having surpassed the Iraqi insurgency as the primary target of hatred. Ironic, perhaps, since one of the main allegations leveled by right-wing blogs toward the media is that the media ignores the reprehensible actions of the insurgents and focuses its energy instead on scandals involving our own troops.

Oddly enough, the men who founded our country thought having a free press was pretty important -- the protection of the press was included in the very first amendment made to the Constitution. Despite how the children over at the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler howl for journalists to be hung, there's a very critical role for the press and modern-day media to play in making democracy work. Simply, the press acts as an additional and independent set of checks and balances for the rest of the government -- making sure the populace is fully informed about the actions of those they elect to represent them. Examples of this in action are too numerous and well-known to bother citing.

America's military is made up of individuals who are all paid with tax dollars, meaning that each and every soldier, sailor, marine, and airman is a public servant, from the lowliest private to the most decorated general. The military is accountable to the public for its actions, and the public, having no choice but to fork over a third of its collective income to the government, has a right to know what its investment is up to and how well it is performing its job, which in the military's case is primarily the security of those same citizens. Hence the title, Department of Defense.

Naturally, for many reasons, security and safety primary among them, the public cannot possibly be immediately privvy to everything the military does. However, that does not change the fact that the military (and the rest of the government) operates under a public trust. When that trust is broken, the People (as in, "We the People") have a right to know.

Enter the military's public affairs branch, and the Defense Department's Principles of Information:

"It is Department of Defense policy to make available timely and accurate information so that the public, the Congress, and the news media may assess and understand the facts about national security and defense strategy. Requests for information from organizations and private citizens shall be answered quickly. In carrying out that DoD policy, the following principles of information shall apply:

"Information shall be made fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions. The Freedom of Information Act will be supported in both letter and spirit.

"A free flow of general and military information shall be made available, without censorship or propaganda, to the men and women of the Armed Forces and their dependents.

"Information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.

"Information shall be withheld when disclosure would adversely affect national security, threaten the safety or privacy of U.S. Government personnel or their families, violate the privacy of the citizens of the United States, or be contrary to law.

"The Department of Defense's obligation to provide the public with information on DoD major programs may require detailed Public Affairs (PA) planning and coordination in the Department of Defense and with the other Government Agencies. Such activity is to expedite the flow of information to the public; propaganda has no place in DoD public affairs programs."
A lofty set of rules, to be sure. The first set of these I saw were signed by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.

Due to my own current involvement in the Army's public affairs program, I'm going to decline further comment at this particular time. However, I've seen enough to know that reporters are right not to trust everything spoken from an official podium.

And why would they? The goals of the public affairs branch and those of the press are inherently different. Given the press' role as a watchdog for the rest of the government, I prefer that they err on the side of cynicism. State-run media, as a general rule, have not been historically very helpful.

In many cases, and the military is one of them, the press is the only means by which a government agency can be expected to be held accountable to its masters -- the citizens whose tax dollars fund it. So go ahead, Rottweiler and whoever else would blame the media for every misstep in Iraq -- string all the journalists up and see what happens to this free country you love to extoll so much. Refuse to acknowledge the fissures and failures that continue to plague the human endeavor called government, and line the press corps up against the wall. Do it, and see what happens to your Free Country.

I think you'd be in for some very frightening surprises.