The Media Is Failing To Communicate The Military To Civilians


I have hung out at The Reliable Source, a members-only bar at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. I have also hung out at Kickers, a not-so-fine establishment in Clarksville, Tennessee, a short distance from Fort Campbell, where eight male enlisted soldiers fight (sometimes physically) for the attention of every one female.

To truly understand the military, as journalists who cover it must do, one should spend more time in the latter, not the former. The military culture --- the sleepy backwoods towns, church on Sunday, and yes, the sleazy bars --- is a distant place from Georgetown and the Upper East Side, and this cultural barrier between the press and the military is adding to an already uneasy relationship between the two.

Just 24% of Americans, according to Gallup, express a high or very high regard for the ethical standards of journalists. I’m guessing a clear majority of military service members don’t think much of the ethical standards of journalists, either. And the events surrounding Brian Williams won’t help matters.

I am on both sides of this divide. I served in Iraq in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in 2003 and 2004, and was a bureau correspondent in Afghanistan for McClatchy Newspapers in 2009 and 2010.

I am aware that no amount of trust building is ever going to convince some in the military that the media boogeymen — with their regular generic tributes to the men and women serving in harm’s way — are indeed not Jane Fonda, back from Hanoi.

As a reporter (even one who had served in the military), I was frequently criticized by troops for not reporting the “good news” stories coming out of Afghanistan, as if the work being done by U.S. troops was tantamount to “the good news.”

In 2004, the Army multiplied the number of soldiers assigned to its public affairs branch, ostensibly to better communicate with the general public, but also to more tightly control even the most trivial information. I once noted to a congressman on the House Armed Services Committee I regularly covered as a reporter that in a meeting between him and a colonel, the latter would have a press staff four or five times the size of his own.

This insular culture can have some rather bizarre and amusing consequences.

I recall as an enlisted Army journalist when then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, apparently unbothered by the pressing matters of events in Iraq and Afghanistan, ordered that all Army missives and public affairs documents capitalize the word “soldier.” A literary arms race followed. Now all memos, emails, press releases, even Facebook posts, capitalize “soldier,” “sailor,” “airman,” and “Marine.” (The last is appropriately capitalized, as Marines serve in the Marine Corps, making it a proper noun, whereas people who serve in the Army are not called “Armies.”) I have recently seen military communiques that have capitalized “families” when referring to the families of service members.

Clearly, with such peculiar priorities, the military is a long way from being blameless in the breakdown of its relationship with the press. But, as the Williams fiasco demonstrates, the press must recognize its own role in creating this chasm.

Both as a soldier and a journalist, I came to know reporters covering the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as professional, knowledgeable, and rigidly unbiased, but also unmistakably coming from the rarefied social circles of Washington and New York. For these D.C.- and New York-based reporters parachuting into Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the cultural and social differences are paralyzing.

This divide emerged time and again. Sometimes it was cringeworthy, like when I witnessed a CNN reporter refer to the 101st Airborne Division as the “101st Air Force Division,” or the countless times I read the term “soldier” in reference to service members in the Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

Other times, the divide was more subtle, but clearly a source of resentment for service members. Journalists wore trendier clothes. They were in Iraq physically, but their minds floated back in forth between there and New York or Washington. They were freer than us. Once during a press conference in Mosul, a British journalist whispered to me in a cockney accent, “I wish this guy would get this over with so I can start drinking.” In short, they lived in a separate world.

Underlying it all was a sense that, too often, journalists viewed service members as subjects of news stories, not people. In an admittance exam I took for the master’s program at the Columbia School of Journalism, I was given a scenario: If we’re covering a funeral of service member killed in Iraq, and that service member’s widow asked me to pray with her, would I do it? I answered, with a bit of ire, that having been to a few of these funerals, they were not occasions for debates on ethics in journalism.

Less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, and 99% don’t. Worse yet, the few who do serve often live and work in remote, isolated communities.

In many ways, it is up to the media to bridge the two worlds. Right now, we’re failing.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Gray
(U.S. Army/Pfc. Hubert D. Delany III)

More than 7,500 boots on display at Fort Bragg this month served as a temporary memorial to service members from all branches who have died since 9/11.

The boots — which had the service members' photos and dates of death — were on display for Fort Bragg's Directorate of Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation's annual Run, Honor and Remember 5k on May 18 and for the 82nd Airborne Division's run that kicked off All American Week.

"It shows the families the service members are still remembered, honored and not forgotten," said Charlotte Watson, program manager of Fort Bragg's Survivor Outreach Services.

Read More Show Less

After more than a decade of research and development and upwards of $500 million in funding, the Navy finally plans on testing its much-hyped electromagnetic railgun on a surface warship in a major milestone for the beleaguered weapons system, Navy documents reveal.

The Navy's latest Northwest Training and Testing draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Assessment (NWTT EIS/OEIS), first detailed by the Seattle Times on Friday, reveals that " the kinetic energy weapon (commonly referred to as the rail gun) will be tested aboard surface vessels, firing explosive and non-explosive projectiles at air- or sea-based targets."

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Army/Sgt. Amber Smith)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Congress fell short ahead of Memorial Day weekend, failing to pass legislation that would provide tax relief for the families of military personnel killed during their service.

Senators unanimously approved a version of the bipartisan Gold Star Family Tax Relief Act Tuesday sending it back to the House of Representatives, where it was tied to a retirement savings bill as an amendment, and passed Thursday.

When it got back to the Senate, the larger piece of legislation failed to pass and make its way to the President Trump's desk.

Read More Show Less

In less than three years after the National Security Agency found itself subject to an unprecedentedly catastrophic hacking episode, one of the agency's most powerful cyber weapons is reportedly being turned against American cities with alarming frequency by the very foreign hackers it was once intended to counter.

Read More Show Less
(U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Scott Schmidt)

Editor's Note: This article by Richard Sisk originally appeared on, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The spectacle of hundreds of thousands of motorcycles roaring their way through the streets of Washington, D.C., to Memorial Day events as part of the annual Rolling Thunder veterans tribute will be a thing of the past after this coming weekend.

Former Army Sgt. Artie Muller, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran and co-founder of Rolling Thunder, said the logistics and costs of staging the event for Memorial Day, which falls on May 27 this year, were getting too out of hand to continue. The ride had become a tradition in D.C. since the first in 1988.

"It's just a lot of money," said the plainspoken Muller, who laced an interview with a few epithets of regret over having to shut down Rolling Thunder.

Read More Show Less