Media and the battlefield

INFORMATION WARFARE: Winning the Media Battle (March 11, 2004 entry)

Strategy Page has a great entry on the effect of the modern media on military operations.

The media front is one not often discussed. It is there, nonetheless, and it often has a decisive effect on a war. The 1993 firefight in Mogadishu was, in fact, a tactical victory for the United States. The raid achieved its objectives, the capture of some high-ranking members of Mohammed Farah Aidid’s militia, and in the resulting firefight, Aidid’s militia suffered hundreds of casualties.

The problem, though, was in the media presentation. The sight of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets created such an outcry that the Clinton Administration ordered a pullout. This was not the first time the media had created the impression of defeat. Another big example was the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was remarkably similar – the Viet Cong was defeated on the battlefield and finished as a fighting force, but the American media portrayed the battle as a major setback. The result was to turn popular opinion against the Vietnam War.

While media coverage was a huge part of the public opinion swings after Mogadishu and Tet, there were other factors, too. The media wouldn’t have been able to swing things so strongly if there hadn’t already been some doubt and concern.

Still, there’s no doubt that news reports and the way they’re presented have a gigantic effect on the public. If presented even-handedly and fairly, this is the way it should be. If the reports are stilted in one way or another, it’s wrong.

I believe that this was a major reason that the military allowed embedded reporters during the invasion of Iraq. Getting the reporters on the ground with the troops, with chances to get to know the guys personally and see the day-to-day grind of a military operation provided a good opportunity to present events in a fairly realistic manner. Some charge that the embedded reporters were more prone to make pro-US stories, and I imagine that there’s some truth to that, but the fact is that those guys were there with the troops and saw what the troops saw AS IT HAPPENED. If Maureen Dowd and other columnists want to criticize the military campaign, that’s their right. But should she and reporters and newsreaders who either weren’t in Iraq at all or were far behind the lines be taken as seriously as those who witnessed it firsthand? You decide.

Go read the Strategy Page post.