Responsible or irresponsible reporting

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Mar 13, 2006 1:17 PM

We writers – whether journalists reporting, columnists expounding, or authors expanding – have an incredible responsibility. We must be critical in our approach to news and information. We must understand it. We must remember it is not about us as writers; it is solely about our readers. We must take the information we receive; ensure that it is both thorough and unflaggingly truthful. Then we must accurately boil it down in a fashion that is digestible for our readers.

There is another variable in the reporting mix: We must report and write responsibly.

And when it comes to writing about war and military operations, we have to strike a balance between what we owe the news-consuming general public and what we owe our soldiers in the field.

For instance, as a military/defense writer, I often find myself privy to sensitive information. Such information, if read by the enemy (and make no mistake, the enemy reads what we write), could put the lives of our men and women in uniform at great risk. This is a trust the vast majority of my colleagues and I take very seriously. But more than a few defense contractors and some senior military leaders believe not all reporters feel bound by such accuracy or responsibility.

Case in point: a story published January 7, 2006 in The New York Timesthat criticized, among other things, the military’s issuance – or lack thereof – of body armor for troops in Iraq.

According to the story, “Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Body Armor” by Michael Moss, “The Pentagon has been collecting the data on wounds since the beginning of the war in March 2003 in part to determine the effectiveness of body armor. The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information ‘screams to be published.’ But it would take nearly two years.”

Then on February 13, Army Times senior staff writer Gordon Lubold reported that at the behest of Congressman Curt Weldon (R – PA), “Mallak testified at [a February 2 Congressional] hearing that the quote in The New York Times story ‘was very much taken out of context’ and that his remarks were made not in regard to body armor but to another issue altogether.”

Indeed, the issue screaming to be published had to do with Mallak’s concern over some Marines’ use of Ephedra, a performance-enhancing drug that dangerously raises heart-rate and blood pressure. Lubold continues: “At that, Weldon began to pound the table and scream. ‘Families all across this country are worried about their young people because a reporter took this out of context,’ he thundered. ‘Somebody has to hold the media accountable because families all over the country that we represent think that somehow the military doesn't care.’”

Of course, anyone who has ever served in the military understands that such a comment taken out of context also can negatively impact troop morale, particularly when the comment is made by a military leader (Mallak is a commander in the U.S. Navy) and published on the front page of the third largest-circulating newspaper in the nation.

To The New York Times’ credit, the paper ran a correction on February 18 (though 42 days after the comment was published), a portion of which reads: “Dr. Mallak’s information concerned a range of noncombat and combat-related deaths and was not limited to armor-related incidents.”

But in a recent interview, Maj. Gen. William D. Catto, commanding general of the Marine Corps Systems Command in Quantico, Virginia, told me that the screams-to-be-published bit was just one of three particulars in The Times article that was disturbing.

“We believe it’s a good thing to have the opportunity to talk with members of the Fourth Estate,” said Catto. “All we ask in return is a balanced story. In that instance, we provided

The New York Times with all the facts. We answered every question completely and honestly. When the story was published, it was markedly different than what we expected. We were frustrated with the lack of professionalism that was displayed.” The story leads with “a secret Pentagon study has found that at least 80 percent of the Marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to their upper body could have survived if they had extra body armor.”

Catto says the first four words in the story were “patently untrue. There was no secret report. The study referred to was commissioned by the Armed Forces Pathology Institute to look at combat deaths and help us understand how we might improve our body armor. It was for official use only, but it was not secret.”

Moss, who wrote the piece, disagrees.

“It was not classified, but it was secret in the sense that it was not released publicly,” he said during a phone conversation, last week.

The third, potentially most-dangerous feature of the story, according to the General, was the revelation – in specifics – of body armor vulnerabilities.

“Mr. Moss highlighted and discussed the actual areas of potential vulnerability in the armor, which we specifically asked him not to do, and he did it anyway,” Catto says. “You having been a Marine can understand why we would ask him not to do that. But he did.”

Moss says that though there is a very “difficult, tricky line” to decide what to go public with, in this instance “nobody asked us not to publish the information we published. They expressed their own reasons for not publishing the wound study. But nobody made the request to us that we not.”

The story did not simply specify that there were unprotected areas of the body perceptively protected by existing body armor, but it highlighted those areas in both content and a color graphic, which illustrated in red exactly where bullets and shrapnel had previously struck and killed Marines. Certainly, any terrorist training camp where the bad guys are learning how best to kill American soldiers could make use of such a graphic.

They could, but would they? says Moss. “Case after case of American soldiers being killed in Iraq are of soldiers standing or running, then being mowed down at 90-degree angles by randomly sprayed AK-47 fire,” he says. “The chart isn’t going to be of any value to those types of un-skilled insurgents who are just spraying, not aiming. And the professionally trained snipers already know what they are aiming for. They’ve already done their research. So, I’m a little hard-pressed to think how this diagram would help either of those two examples of insurgents.”

The Times story also took issue with DoD’s contracting of Ladson, S.C.-based Force Protection, Inc. to manufacture blast-and-mine protective vehicles like the Buffalo and the Cougar, currently in service in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The story criticized a Force Protection deadline-extension for delivery of vehicles to DoD on a “string of blunders.” Force Protection officials have since vigorously denied the characterization and said the “so-called string of blunders” was nothing more than “growing pains” experienced by many start-ups. The story also discussed the fact that two disgruntled former employees had filed a false claims case against the company for allegedly falsifying records “to cover up defective workmanship.”

True, the allegations were made; and the Times did contact Force Protection about the allegations prior to publishing the story. But, according to company officials, the sheer fact that the allegations were eventually published led to a 48-hour pulling-off-the-line of several Cougar vehicles that placed soldiers and Marines who would have had to conduct missions in lesser-protected vehicles at greater risk. Yet no defects in the vehicles were found during the inspections.

Of course, blame for the stand-down of vehicles can’t be laid at the doorstep of The New York Times. But it is interesting to note that some of the vehicles inspected had already been through more than one enemy attack and all passengers had survived without injury.

“There has never been a compromise in terms of the ballistic and armor integrity of that vehicle,” says Lt. Col. Mike Micucci, the Marine Corps’ project manager for the Cougar.

“Force Protection is doing a great job,” adds Catto. “They have done everything they’ve said they were going to do except meet their production schedule. Quality control is good. The Marine Corps as an institution is very happy with the Cougar. Their product is great.”

Fortunately for all, Cougars are on the road in Iraq. No one is dying in them, and more are being shipped as we speak.

Other stories, many with potentially negative consequences for U.S. military and intelligence forces worldwide, have resulted in widespread criticism of reporters, publications, and what DoD officials are telling me are hidden, politically motivated agendas. We’re all familiar with the seemingly frenzied quest to graphically showcase the U.S. military’s “shortcomings” at Abu Ghraib. One picture seems not enough. Many media companies are eager to publish more: The bloodier, the better. Then there are the revelations of secret CIA-run prisons in Eastern Europe (Yeah, releasing that information is really helpful in trying to win the war on terror.), as well as prisoner unhappiness at Gitmo, the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping on Al Qaeda without first getting a judge’s permission, and frequent, dangerously inflammatory references to the insurgency in Iraq as a “civil war,” when it is not.

All of those are certainly dramatic, newsworthy stories, but they also should have been balanced in the beginning with the considerations for what their tactical and strategic implications might be if they were published.

So how do we present the news if we know there is going to be a direct or collateral effect of that presentation that may possibly, adversely impact our nation and those who are physically defending it day in and day out? It’s a tough question, to be sure.

Reporting needs to be fair, objective, and interesting. But we need to look beyond Pulitzer prizes, who’s scooping whom, and the newspapers’ bottom-lines. We need to look to our readers. We need to write for our readers, and we need to remember that they – and we – are Americans first, and our country is at war for its very survival.