The article features ten responses from current or former Army company commanders on their views of the press. One cavalry officer sums up the attitude of many of his colleagues when he writes:
Here’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Do not trust reporters to get the story right. Do not trust them to quote you accurately. Do not trust them by expressing your thoughts ‘off the record.’ I handled the media like I handled any key-leader engagement [KLE] in Iraq. I recorded our conversations and put them on the record. Now, while there are these downsides to talking with the media, you do need to ensure that the story of your Soldiers gets out. I am tired of hearing complaints that the media are not reporting all the good things we do downrange from the same people who refuse to interact with the media. The media are the ones who, warts and all, will showcase your Soldiers’ actions. And those actions, warts and all, need to be reported. In the end, remember that reporters are using you as much as you are using them. Act accordingly and ‘cover your six.’
The sentiment just about nails it, though, as with any other organization, it would be unfair to think that you can sum up the vast range of attitudes and viewpoints among members of the military on this or any other subject with a single quote.
So I asked U.S. Army Colonel Steve Boylan, the senior public affairs observer/trainer for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, for his thoughts on the military-press issue. Boylan, it should be noted, has perhaps more high-level public-affairs experience than almost any other active-duty officer, having been the spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq from 2004-2005, followed by a stint as General Petraeus’s public affairs officer in Baghdad from 2007-2008.
Boylan now helps teach career officers, and part of what they learn is how to deal with, and understand, the press. I asked him if he thinks that the episode will cause some officers to refuse to deal with the press. “I think those that understand the information environment, those that are knowledgeable on this and understand it will know that you have to engage the media,” he said.
But he acknowledges that those who “have felt that the press is out to get us” will probably hold the McChrystal story up as an example of why they should ignore reporters, and those who favor more openness will say that the military needs to better understand the media and their expectations to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. “And then there are going to be those that have been on the fence and don’t really have a view one way or the other—they could go either way. And those are the folks that I’m more concerned about than anyone else. I’ve got to help them understand that engaging reporters, engaging the media, is not a want to do, it’s a have to do.”
The relationship between the military and the media will never be a comfortable one, nor should it be. The Rolling Stone piece—which was essentially an opinion piece wrapped up as a devastatingly candid profile—is just the latest illustration of that fact.