Saturday, October 21, 2006


Yon on Censorship

Glenn Reynolds alerted readers of Instapundit that Michael Yon’s anticipated Weekly Standard piece on military censorship is up at The Weekly Standard.

Michael Yon surely must be well known to any reader of MILBLOGS, and certainly any reader of mine, though I haven’t linked to Yon recently. Yon has done some of the finest independent reporting from Iraq. His reporting and on-line presence has evolved substantially in the last year or so, and along with other reporters like Bill Roggio, represents a critical element in the Media War in which we’re engaged.

Which only underscores the value of Yon’s perspective on (in?) the Media War, any offensive component of Information Operations (IO), and broader implications for Department of Defense (DoD) censorship of MILBLOGS.

Yon critiques DoD policies that direct and influence the military management and interaction with embedded journalists, criticizing official policy within Public Affairs Office (PAO) organizations, and specifically indicting the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) in Baghdad.

Yet, the same attitudes and initiatives undertaken within DoD and the military, described by Yon, also appear to be impacting MILBLOGS, in theater and out. More on that at the end.

Yon introduces his detailed critique with as good a description of the Media War, and the dangers posed to the successful execution of that war, by over-eager, incompetent, or turf-jealous bureaucracy:
In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda's media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have "journalists" crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an "embed" media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.

Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn't manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.
Yon’s a strong and trustworthy supporter of our military, as well as our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. So why does he send such a strong and urgent warning?
My experiences with the U.S. military as a soldier and then as a writer and photographer covering soldiers have been overwhelmingly positive, and I feel no shame in saying I am biased in favor of our troops. Even worse, I feel no shame in calling a terrorist a terrorist. I've seen their deeds and tasted air filled with burning human flesh from their bombs. I've seen terrorists kill children while our people risk their lives to save civilians again, and again, and again. I feel no shame in saying I hope that Afghanistan and Iraq "succeed," whatever that means. For that very reason, it would be a dereliction to remain silent about our military's ineptitude in handling the press. The subject is worthy of a book, but can't wait that long, lest we grow accustomed to a subtle but all too real censorship of the U.S. war effort.
The government has no right to withhold information or to deny access to our combat forces just because that information might anger, frighten, or disturb us. By allowing only a trickle of news to come out of Iraq, when all involved parties know the flow could be more robust, the Pentagon is doing just that.
Yon goes on to remark that many of those eager to report in Iraq are being denied access, and contrasts these denials with substantial Pentagon funding to public relations firms. Yon rightly observes that the centers of gravity in counterinsurgency are public opinions, foreign and domestic. He also suggests that it doesn’t really matter whether current obstacles to worthy reporting are caused by intentional policy or undiagnosed incompetence.

How bad can it be? Yon paints a bleak picture:
The enemy trumps our jets and satellites with supremely one-sided media superiority. The lowest level terror cells have their own film crews. While al Sahab hums along winning battle after propaganda battle, the bungling gatekeepers at the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) reciprocate with ridiculous and costly obstacles that deter embedded media covering our forces, ultimately causing harm to only one side: ours. And they get away with it because in any conflict that can be portrayed as U.S. military versus media, the public reflexively sides with the military.
The CPIC clearly frustrates Yon, as evidenced by his rather lengthy first hand account of their ineptitude. Based on Yon’s account, at least one key officer within the CPIC doesn’t seem to understand new media, its practitioners or how they operate (or how overwhelmingly they support the Media War). That should be a major concern to the DoD, but I fear it’s not.

Yon is a very influential and respected representative of new media, and he’s linked and referenced regularly by CENTCOM PAO, Army Times, and many other official, quasi-official, and DoD-friendly and DoD approved organizations. If he’s getting this frustrated, as a friend of the military, one can only imagine how difficult it might be for an otherwise adversarial media. Not that I necessarily mind that consequence in specific instances (C N N), but still.

Like Yon, I have been very impressed with the PAO staff I’ve come across, both for their new media savvy, and their “thinking outside the box” to build linkages within formal PAO communities, and blogs and other independent media. But I also agree with Yon’s assessment:
But a system that so easily thwarts the work of good men and women is a system in desperate need of an overhaul.
Yon has much cause for complaint of how much of his reporting has been received by many commentators, whether over his reference to an Insurgency early on, or his warnings about a sectarian civil war more recently. His view has been vindicated perhaps more convincingly than many of his nay-sayers. (Myself included.)

Here’s Yon’s conclusion, and it’s the real deal:
The media are far from perfect. War reporters, like everyone else, get things wrong. Some of them, unsympathetic to the war aims, undoubtedly try to twist the news. But no coverage at all is even worse. It does a disservice to American soldiers. It is cruel to their families. It leaves the American public in the dark. If we lose the media war, we will lose Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire "war on terror."

If our military cannot win the easy media battles with writers who are unashamed to say they want to win the war, there is no chance of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans and Iraqis, and both wars will be lost. And some will blame the media. But that will not resurrect the dead.
Censorship is indeed a strong word, and a dangerous precedent, if established in an organized and widespread fashion. Unless attempted systematically, the openness and fluidity of the Internet will allow determined independents to evade any less organized effort.

MILBLOGS, until recently, have heard widespread accusations of organized censorship more from our trolling critics, rather than first or second hand experience. There are some indications that some local and theater commanders, reacting to pressure or directives, or even in anticipation of same, have begun to restrict or interfere with individual MILBLOGS and MILBLOGGERS.

More in coming days.

UPDATE: Greyhawk has been all over this, at MILBLOGS.

Links: Diary of a Hollywood Refugee

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