Press-ing On Against The Military

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This column was written by Mackubin Thomas Owens.

The moral smugness of the American press has become insufferable. One indication of this is the apparent belief on the part of some journalists that certain people are not worthy of access to the sacred pages of their papers.

So we have the recent spectacle of the Buffalo News congratulating itself for its decision to reject stories from "pro-war" veterans. In a June 25 story by Jerry Zremski, the News recounts its rejection of a proposal by "former White House spokesman" Taylor Gross to offer the services of two highly decorated veterans as embedded correspondents in order to provide "balanced and credible viewpoints gained directly from those closest to and most affected by the Iraq War."

Now there are perfectly good reasons to decline such an offer. Sponsoring non-journalists in a war zone is a major undertaking for a newspaper. The primary concern is legal liability. But "embedded correspondents" are also not trained as reporters, which creates problems in translating their raw coverage into publishable copy for the paper. Indeed, the New York Post declined Gross' offer for these reasons.

But Zremski's article makes it clear that the real concern of the Buffalo News in this case was not liability or journalistic competence. It was politics. According to a source cited by the News, "the embedding effort appears to have 'a very strong relationship' with Republican activists" because the two veterans "are top leaders of Vets for Freedom, a new group with a highly polished Web site hosted by a firm that previously worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee."

But there are reasons to believe that the Buffalo News is not purely concerned about objectivity. For example, it has published, apparently without second thought, stories based on reports from Iraqi informants who may or may not be in the pay of the insurgents. The implication here is that the Buffalo News places more confidence in shady Iraqi stringers of unknown loyalties than they do in two veterans willing to go where the action is because they are "pro-war" and are alleged to have a connection to "Republican activists."

Let's take a closer look at the two veterans the News dismisses as partisan "war boosters." One, Wade Zerkle, was badly burned by an IED in Iraq. The other, David Bellavia, who is from the Buffalo region, is smeared by his hometown paper as a political hack because President Bush invited him to the State of the Union address. But what the News doesn't tell the reader is that Bellavia was invited because he has been nominated for the Medal of Honor for clearing two houses and killing eight jihadists in Fallujah after his company and platoon commanders were killed.

The self-congratulatory mood that permeates the Buffalo News story is really just the latest manifestation of an attitude that goes back to Vietnam. All too many journalists see themselves as watchdogs of democracy, intellectually and morally superior to those who fight for the country. Soldiers, after all, are doing what they do because they are not smart enough to do anything else. They most certainly did not attend the Columbia School of Journalism. They are especially suspect if they support the war. The only soldier or veteran worth listening to is the one who has come to his senses and opposes the war. Thus, in the years after Vietnam, John Kerry and other veterans who had turned against the war were media darlings, while those who supported the war were portrayed as somehow inauthentic.

The Buffalo News's denigration of patriotic — what the News calls "pro-war" — veterans reminds me of a media-military symposium that took place some years ago in the aftermath of Vietnam and went a long way toward cementing the military's negative image of the press. The moderator of a panel that included Peter Jennings of ABC News, Mike Wallace of CBS, and Marine Col. George Connell, offered a hypothetical scenario: In wartime, you are invited to accompany an enemy unit that says it will prove that an ally of the United States is committing atrocities. While accompanying the enemy patrol, you find yourself in the midst of preparations for an ambush that may very well cause the death of Americans. Do you try to warn the Americans?

After hesitating, Jennings replied that he would try to warn the Americans. But Wallace responded that he would regard it as just another story and that he would not feel a "higher duty" to warn the Americans. Col. Connell watched this exchange in what can only be described as a cold rage. When asked to comment, Col. Connell said of Wallace, "I feel utter contempt. Two days later those same two journalists (could be) caught in an ambush and are lying 200 yards from my position, and they expect that I'm going to send Marines to get them. They're not Americans. They're just journalists."

I hope the Buffalo News's treatment of Zerkle and Bellavia is not a harbinger of a return to the bad old days of the post-Vietnam mutual mistrust between the press and the military. Morally smug journalists need to remember that a free press does not exist for its own sake, but because the founders saw it as a guardian of republican government. They should also remember that this is a responsibility the press shares with the military.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.

By Mackubin Thomas Owens
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online