U.S. Military Has Lost the PR Battle – But they Can Turn That Around


By: Warner Todd Huston

If this war is another Vietnam fiasco in the end, it will be just as much the fault of the Public Relations arm of the US Military as it is that of the enemy or the Mainstream Media. (Called PAOs for Public Affairs Officers from here on)

It is assured that the large preponderance of the MSM is antithetical to the armed forces of the US Military and Army authorities are right to be mindful that most reporters are not out there only to cover the war but are out there with the agenda to embarrass thee military, destroy the president, and alter US policies.

But, just as one must be wary of enemies, one should cultivate allies. And for the US Military to treat all reporters as if they are no better than the enemy, well that is a horrible mistake. And that is what appears to be happening.

Either that, or the PAOs are so utterly incompetent that it is nearly criminal.

Take the case of independent reporter Michael Yon as an example of the failure and incompetence of the PAOs. His case is a perfect example of turning an ostensible journalist ally into a possible enemy. At the very least they are priming him to show nothing but the worst of the administration of the war in Iraq.

Yon is a former member of the US armed forces himself and what made him want to fly to Iraq to become a war correspondent was a “…growing sense that what I was seeing reported on television, as well as in newspapers and magazines, was inconsistent with the reality my friends were describing.”

Here is a reporter who should be given all the access he wants — short of mission critical info, of course. A man who has a heart full of respect and camaraderie for his fellow soldiers and who has a natural sympathy with them could lend the Military an outlet that they could be sure wouldn’t be pushing an anti-American agenda like that of most of the MSM.

Yon is so fiercely independent and true to his principles that he refuses to even take advertising and will not sign up with any of the MSM’s outlets despite lucrative offers to do so. He is even reluctant to sell his photos to raise the considerable cash he needs to fund his work in Iraq. He exists almost wholly on donations to his cause by appreciative readers.

But, Yon seems to be facing increasing reluctance by the Military to give him a fair shake and too often it even seems as if they are purposefully trying to roadblock his efforts to get a story.

As can be seen on Yon’s segment he calls a RUBS, which stands for a report made quickly and on the move that is “Raw, Unedited, Barely Spell-checked” — different from his more formal work — Yon gives us just a small taste of the obstruction the Military is putting in his way.

Last week Yon was “evicted from a trailer” he was staying in “due to lack of space.” He laments the total lack of facilities for journalists, as well. “Billions of dollars are spent on the war each month”, he says, “… yet there are no designated places for journalists? While so many soldiers and their families shout for coverage from Afghanistan (remember that place?) and Iraq, I can sometimes be found from midnight to sunrise sitting outside, trying to transmit photos through a wireless network that only works sometimes.”

Yon finds that independent reporters really have an almost impossible task before them. “Trying to get living quarters and good communications is truly a waste of time.” Yon reports. “Only the richest or most determined news agencies dare come here for more than a brief stay. Most of the journalists seem to start cracking pretty quick anyway.”

That might all sound like the normal gripes about a tough job. And, granted it isn’t the Army’s job to set up posh apartments for journalists. But, Yon recounts further resistance, some that isn’t warranted, among the very PAOs who should be helping writers like him.

“Generally it’s a huge waste of time and money to come here, and the hassle and risk to reward ratio is very bad. I’ve spent more than a year embedded in Iraq, and numerous times public affairs people have made snide remarks that journalists should be happy they get to eat ‘their chow’ for free. Of course, they don’t mention that ’their chow’ belongs to American taxpayers, the same taxpayers they hurt when they squelch journalism from the war. Whether they do it directly, intentionally indirectly, or just by plain bungling the simplest stuff, like making sure writers have a surface to write on, whatever the case, I haven’t met anyone yet who knows how to write or hold a camera who comes to Iraq for free food. It’s really not fun here, next to impossible to do the job, and the food is nothing special. After all, we’re not talking about covering the French army.”

As I have written before, there is often a clash of missions between the Military and the Media, so a certain amount of antagonism could be unavoidable. But, one thing that is death to a cause is to antagonize the press and, as Yon recounts, that is what seems to be happening to many reporters in Iraq.

“Most people can enter the dining facility without a problem, but at the dining facility near my tent, I get searched every time because I have a press ID. That’s a nice touch–wand the press before they eat. But I know first hand that it can get even more heavy-handed. One time, in 2005, after I wrote something they didn’t like (Proximity Delays), I needed a guard to eat.”

Yon ends his RUBS report with this: “Fact is, as soon as the public affairs people will start being part of the solution and not part of the problem, I can start writing about the successes and the soldiers like Q who are out in Baghdad even now, trying to make this work.”

Let’s face it, the image this war has could be vastly improved if the US Military would think past the end of its nose enough to become an ally to writers like Yon. And the PAOs failure to cultivate Yon’s and the few writers out there like him good will is a shortsighted move.

We NEED writers like Yon out there. Independent writers that don’t have an axe to grind, don’t have stateside editors desirous of pushing a political agenda with their war correspondent’s work, and writers who would give the soldiers and cause a fair shake. Writers like Yon are what we need.

I urge the US Military to realize that this war is being lost back home in the states because CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times and the rest of the anti-war press is being allowed an open field to misreport what is going on in Iraq without a single counter move by our Military administrators.

We NEED the story of what our boys are doing over there to get out. We need the truth to be presented.

So, I, for one, hope the US Military gets the heck out of the way of writers like Yon. He could help get the word out about the great things that are happening in our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories that the MSM kill every day could be the difference between support of this effort by the American public and their turning away from this important work.

Whether the US Military likes it or not, they need writers like Yon to get the truth to the American people because it is the voters who have the power to see this war through. Without a favorable and truthful voice coming from the war zones the US electorate may find itself wanting to cut and run in frustration if all they ever see is the bad things that are happening there. And, if the Army wants to win the peace in Iraq they’d better begin to realize that they must win the PR war here at home.

I’ve heard several US Generals complaining on TV that the true story about what is going on in Iraq just isn’t getting out. This is undoubtedly correct. With naught but the agenda driven MSM out there bringing us in theater reports who could doubt those generals? But, perhaps they should look a little closer to home than the offices of the New York Times for the reason why.

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