Shooting the Messenger: The Political Impact of War Reporting

  • Published

Shooting the Messenger: The Political Impact of War Reporting by Paul L. Moorcraft and Philip M. Taylor. Potomac Books, 2008, 336 pp.

Shooting the Messenger seems an unfortunate choice of title. It implies that journalists are only messengers delivering impartial messages and that an inevitable hostility exists between the establishment and the media. In the waning years of the eighteenth century, according to John C. Miller, “In their efforts to turn the Washington and Adams administrations out of office, Republican journalists had freely used lies, canards, and misrepresentations; nothing was too scurrilous to serve as grist for their propaganda mills” (The Federalist Era, 1960, 233). That notion will resonate with many modern military people, a fact Paul Moorcraft and Philip Taylor clearly recognize. Yet it has not always been so, and never has been completely true.

The authors have experience in journalism, academia, and the government in the United Kingdom. Both are prolific writers and have lectured widely in the UK, the rest of Europe, and America. Moorcraft has been a war correspondent and a Sandhurst instructor. Taylor is a professor at the University of Leeds; his many lectures in the United States include the special operators at Hurlburt Field, Florida. He has done a good deal of work about propaganda; Moorcraft has specialized in military history and journalism.

Shooting the Messenger should be high on the reading lists of aspirant strategists. Fundamental to strategy making are the notions of Carl von Clausewitz on uncertainty, chance, and the fog of war. The strategist necessarily makes decisions based on incomplete information and, often, false information. Moorcraft and Taylor arrange their tome in a more or less chronological fashion and their basic message seems to be that journalists do not make policy—they do not lose or win wars. To the authors, politicians are the ultimate deciders, and the journalists are only those who inform. They repeatedly protest that journalists did not lose the Vietnam War (the myth of the CNN effect?)—the deterioration of the US political consensus, among other things, did that.

Yet, Shooting the Messenger frequently laments the fact that journalists’ dependence upon the military often skews their outlook. Embedded reporters quickly develop empathy with their hosts, and self-censoring soon follows. The services’ public relations programs, and especially “strategic communications” programs, are also seen to be unduly influential with the war correspondents. How that is to be reconciled with the basic message that journalists do not make policy is not altogether clear. The government does seem to go to very great lengths to overcome the built-in skepticism of the media, and many would argue that, in itself, skews policy.

No one has exclusive possession of the one true picture of the world around us. None can be more than an approximation of reality. There are many other factors that befog the picture brought to the homeland by the war correspondents. Moorcroft and Taylor frequently make the point that many journalists favor travelling to locations equipped with good hotels and bars. That in itself can cause a bias in favor of places like Saigon and against reporting from, say, central Africa. They also point out that the office journalists back in the home country have their own priorities and deliver that part of the story that fits their own picture to the detriment of the one that they get from the field. Many of the war correspondents also know that the money managers back home will pay the expenses for some areas and subjects more readily than others and make their choices with that in mind. To some extent, the degree to which the reporter will honor his adversarial obligations over the demands of patriotism varies with the times—in the periods when national survival seems threatened, many will hedge in favor of their own country. For wars of choice, though, the tendency is often to take a more critical attitude toward the military and its political leaders. Thus, back in the nineteenth century, there was a greater degree of independence than during the world wars and the Cold War. After the fall of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact, the imperatives of national survival seemed less, and many felt enabled to be more skeptical. Too, the authors admit that scandal and combat sell much better than, say, peacekeeping. The money managers know that, too, and are more ready to finance trips to combat areas than to those seeming to be at peace.

Can strategists ignore the media in view of all the pressures that skew interpretations? Certainly not. They know that all views are skewed. Political leaders, intelligence people, military people, and the attentive public, all have imperfect world pictures. Strategists can only strive to learn from all sources available in the hope of making their own view less imperfect than those of their adversaries. Many things in Shooting the Messenger may be irritating to military people; that is all the more reason to give it a high place on your reading list. Probably, the media did not lose the Vietnam War, but would there have been a Spanish-American War without the “penny press?”

Dr. David R. Mets

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."