If you want to hear an earful, ask an American soldier how he feels about our news media. You will invariably hear an outpouring of dismay and outrage over antagonistic and reckless reporting. I have stacks of letters and e-mails from soldiers and their families sharing those frustrations. During the Vietnam War, those sentiments would get packed away — private hurts to be silently borne for decades.
But today the Internet has allowed soldiers on the front to disseminate their views — breaking through the media’s entrenched, anti-military bias — in unprecedented ways. In the wake of Newsweek‘s publication of its unsourced, mayhem-inducing and now-retracted item about Koran desecration by U.S. military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, a sergeant in Saudi Arabia immediately responded on a blog called The Anchoress (theanchoressonline.com):
I have placed my life and the life of my fellow soldiers in danger in order to achieve a measure of the freedoms we enjoy at home for the Iraqi and Afghani people. As soldiers, we all understand that we may be asked to participate in wars (actions) that we (or our countrymen) don’t agree with. The irresponsible journalism being practiced by organizations such as Newsweek, however, [is] just inexcusable. At this point, because of their actions and failure to follow up on a claim of that magnitude, they’ve set the process back in Afghanistan immensely . . .
I don’t regret serving my country, not one bit, but to have everything I’m doing here undermined by irresponsible journalists leaves me disgusted and disappointed.
Military bloggers across the Web this week echoed the sergeant’s disgust with American journalism. And it’s not just Newsweek.
It’s the New York Times and CBS News and the overkill over abuses at Abu Ghraib prison. It’s the Boston Globe publishing porn photos passed off by an anti-war city councilor as proof that American GIs were raping Iraqi women.
It’s the constant editorial drumbeat of "quagmire, quagmire, quagmire."
It’s the mainstream media’s bogus reporting on the military’s failure to stop purported "massive" looting of Iraqi antiquities.
It’s the hyping of stories like the military’s purported failure to stop looting of explosives at al Qa Qaa right before the 2004 presidential election — stories that have since dropped off the face of the earth.
It’s the persistent use of euphemisms — "insurgents," "hostage-takers," "activists," "militants," "fighters" — to describe the terrorist head-choppers and suicide bombers trying to kill American soldiers and civilians alike. It’s the knee-jerk caricature of American generals as intolerant anachronisms. It’s the portrayal of honest mistakes in battle as premeditated murders.
It’s the propagandistic rumor-mongering spread by sympathizers of Italy’s Giuliana Sgrena and former CNN executive Eason Jordan about American soldiers targeting and/or murdering journalists.
It’s the glorification of military deserters, who bask in the glow of unquestioning — and largely uncorroborated — print and broadcast profiles.
And it’s the lesser-known insults, too, such as the fraudulent manipulation of Marine recruits by Harper’s magazine. In March, the liberal publication plastered a photo of seven recruits at Parris Island, S.C., under the headline, "AWOL in America: When Desertion Is the Only Option." None of the recruits is a deserter. When some expressed outrage over the deception, the magazine initially shrugged.
"We are decorating pages," sniffed Giulia Melucci, the magazine’s vice president for public relations, to the St. Petersburg Times.
As Ralph Hansen, associate professor of journalism at West Virginia University and a rare member of academia with his head screwed on straight, observed: "Portraying honorable soldiers as deserters is clearly inappropriate. And I don’t see any way Harper’s could claim that they weren’t portraying the young Marines as deserters. A cover is more than just art. I think that someone had a great idea for a cover illustration and forgot that he or she was dealing with images of real people."
The members of our military are more than just an expedient means to a titillating magazine cover or juicy scoop or Peabody Award. Too often since the "War on Terror" was declared, eager Bush-bashing journalists have forgotten that the troops are real people who face real threats and real bloodshed as a consequence of loose lips and keyboards.
It’s not just Newsweek that needs to learn that lesson.