Sunday, May 06, 2007

Columns, kudos, and neurosis

I waited and waited, but the Army decided never to see fit to actually publish my award-winning commentary on its Keith L. Ware Web site. So, for all you who didn't read it -- and most of you didn't -- here's the link.

Advocacy is not good sports copy

That's what got me the first-place nod.

Here's the "Honorable Mention" story I did for sports:

Lakers clobber Eagles 62-27


For two Department of the Army-level awards, I was given two Certificates of Appreciation from the garrison. For those of you not in the Army-awards-know, that's the equivalent of, "Thanks for showing up for work, keep it up."

As frustrated as I am with my job situation right now, I am happy that I got to interview the Wall Street Journal's Greg Jaffe, who has covered the Pentagon for the Grey Lady for the past seven years. I taped our interview, which was held at Fort Knox's golf course, and came up with this story:

Reporter discusses media-military relationship

During one of his regular visits to Iraq as the Wall Street Journal’s military correspondent last year, Greg Jaffe was interviewing a squadron commander with the 1st Cavalry Division.

As he took notes, a sergeant major from another division noticed him and approached.

“Are you a journalist?” the sergeant major asked.

“Yes,” Jaffe replied.

The sergeant major looked at the soft-spoken Virginia native, eyeing his notepad and pen.

“You people all look the same,” he said.

“You guys all look the same, too,” Jaffe said to the ACU-clad sergeant major.

Jaffe visited Fort Knox yesterday to speak to participants in the annual Armor Warfighting Conference about the military’s relationship with the media.

He talked with the Turret Tuesday afternoon.

He’s something of an expert, having covered national defense for the Journal for the past seven years.

In 2000, he was a member of a team of Journal reporters who earned the Pulitzer Prize for their work on national defense issues.

Based in Washington, D.C., where he covers the Pentagon, Jaffe makes two month-long trips to Iraq each year, a schedule he’s kept up since 2003. As a reporter, he said he — and most other journalists — look at the war with a different perspective than members of the military.

“I think we tend to look at problems differently than they do, and it’s probably helpful for them to understand how we see the world,” he said.

Jaffe said he understands the frustration expressed by members of the military about a perceived lack of coverage of their victories and successes, but Jaffe explained that coverage needs to be driven by the overall strategic situation.

“At the strategic level, it’s hard to look at the last four years as anything but a real disappointment,” he said.

“I think the most important metric in any counterinsurgency operation is the security of the people, and if the people are less secure, then you’re losing.”

He said that during his visit to Baghdad in March he noticed that people in various neighborhoods had barricaded their roads with the heaviest objects they could find to prevent suicide car bombers from entering.

“There was a real bunker mentality there,” he said. “There was a lot of fear. And people talked about it.”

With that in mind, Jaffe said the challenge reporters face is accurately representing the strategic situation while at the same time recognizing the very real sacrifices made on the ground by individual Soldiers and units.

“The hard part is that at the tactical level, there has been a lot of heroism, and people are making an incredible sacrifice for the Iraqi people,” he said.

“It’s a huge sacrifice to ask people to be away from home for 12 months or 18 months. They’re sacrificing for the Iraqi people, they’re sacrificing for us, and the challenge is to celebrate that while also acknowledging the overall strategic picture, which is pretty bleak.”

That balance between the strategic and the tactical isn’t easy to strike.

“I think we could do a better job celebrating some of the tactical successes and the sacrifices that are being made,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s that strategic-level picture that has to drive the coverage, to give people in this country the information they need to know to be able to make informed decisions.”

But to do that, Jaffe said he has to approach the war one battalion or one neighborhood at a time. Expecting a single news story to explain all the complexity of the war is asking too much.

“You’re writing with the hope that people who have better things to do will read it,” he said. “I try to pick a battalion or a neighborhood that illustrates some sort of broader truth about the war.”

Jaffe’s work in Iraq has been done exclusively as a media “embed,” which he said is a system that has benefits for all parties involved.

“I think it’s good for the media, and I think it’s good for the Army,” he said.

As a result of the embedding program, “We in the media understand the military a lot better.”

He said he hoped to be able to shed light on the media’s different perspective of the war during his speech at the Armor Conference.

“If you’re going to deal with the media, it’s worth understanding what the media thinks of the story, and how they think about events,” he said.

Commanders have a responsibility to account for themselves to the American people, he said, and that means talking to media representatives becomes essential.

“The biggest thing you can do is to be open and accessible,” he said. “It’s your job (as a battalion commander) to explain what’s going on in your sector. You are the expert on your sector…

“A key center of gravity in this war is the American people, and you better explain what’s going on in your area to them. If you haven’t done that, you’ve probably failed in a key component of your job.”