The relationship between the media and the military has always been rife with manipulation and antagonism, though I've always considered the idea of an "adversarial press" to be far more myth than literal truth.
Take the well-worn accusation that an "adversarial press" turned public opinion against the Vietnam War. Never mind the most important lesson of modern guerrilla war history -- namely that, short of genocide, military might doesn't defeat guerrilla insurgencies. It only multiplies the number of insurgents. (Thank you, War Nerd Gary Brecher).
The 20th Century Fund Task Force on the Military and Media notes: "scholarly data casts doubt on this (the-media-lost-the-Vietnam-war) view. Although the scenes of actual carnage may be most vividly remembered, they were but a small fraction of the footage from Vietnam. And television was not the only source of the public's perception of the horror of war."
"Opinion polls have documented that public support for the Vietnam War declined less rapidly than public support for the Korean War, when television coverage was much less significant and military field censorship was in force. The available evidence also suggests that television coverage of Vietnam reflected a critical view of the war only after public opinion had begun to oppose it."
The same might be said about Iraq invasion and occupation coverage -- reflecting "a critical view of the war only after public opinion had begun to oppose it." In some quarters, that is.
Laying aside debate about whether history is repeating itself, one big difference between the "adversarial press" of the Vietnam War era and today's news is that the American public is now being subjected to Pentagon-orchestrated "psyops" (psychological operations) campaigns.
I suppose the New York Times story about how the Pentagon used more than 75 retired military officers with ties to lucrative defense industry contracts, as a way "to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance," shouldn't be too surprising. But, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that we're being psyoped by our own government.
(Note to self: martial arts may help save your life. Intellectual self-defense may help save your country).
It also shouldn't come as a surprise that the largest contingent of these planted "analysts" are affiliated with "fair and balanced" Fox News, followed by NBC and CNN. It also includes "analysts" from CBS and ABC and extended to op-ed pages across the print spectrum -- news magazines, Web sites and newspapers, including nine that appeared in the "liberal" NYT.
The article, written by Times reporter David Barstow, is a breathtaking revelation into the Machiavellian manipulations of the Bush PR machine, with Rumsfeld playing the puppet master; a roadmap to how war propaganda talking points found their way from Rummy and his minions mouths to military "analysts" hired by news networks and deferred to by the Bill O'Reillys of the world and then sold to the American public as "independent" observers.
There's something satisfying in learning how it is that Aunt Bessie and Uncle Al believed the Iraq-9/11-al Quaeda-WMD propaganda and still insists that progress is being made "over there."
They're psyops victims -- willing victims, though they may be.
They've been listening to people like General Vallely, after one of his Pentagon-sponsored visits to Iraq, telling Alan Colmes on Fox News in 2003: "you can't believe the progress," predicting the insurgency would be "down to a few numbers" within months.
They've been listening to people like retired Marine Col. William Cowan (and, undisclosed to viewers, CEO of a military firm) telling Greta Van Susteren: "we could not be more excited, more pleased" with the "progress" in Iraq.
Vallely later told the NYT that instead of the rosy picture he was peddling on TV, when he went to Iraq he actually "saw immediately...that things were going south."
It's illegal for the U.S. government to conduct psychological operations against the American people but how much do you wanna bet, Congress (or the law-and-order types) won't investigate whether or not the Bush media campaign violated the law?
The real value of the NYT piece is what it teaches us about investigative journalism.
What made the Times piece strong is that it relied on primary source documents -- 8,000 pages of Defense Department documents, to be exact. It began as a federal Freedom of Information Act request submitted over two years ago! It wasn't until the Times sued in federal court, and after several blown court-ordered deadlines, did the documents see the light of day.
And therein lies the crisis of modern journalism: with severe cutbacks in newspaper staffs because of a failing business model, investigative journalism, like the kind Barstow did, is becoming an endangered species.
Sure, bloggers and freelance writers can file Freedom of Information Act requests but you need serious time and resources to get beyond the bureaucratic foot-dragging and stonewalling. How much time and money, including all the legal bills, do you think it cost the NYT to get that story and how many bloggers and free-lancers can afford to take on such labor-intensive work?
Unless this growing void is filled, the American public is heading straight into a pitiful paradox: more breadth and access to news and information (via the internet) but, little, or no depth; a mile wide but an inch deep.
The reaction, or lack thereof, to the Bush psyops campaign and trend toward having less investigative reporting, depends on what people consider to be "the proper role the news media."
To my way of thinking, the responsibility side of the First Amendment coin is for the news media not to be a lap dog or an attack dog, but a watchdog.
Of course, it's up to news consumers to watch who feeds the dog and what makes the tail wag.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.