Brian Williams and Embedded Journalism: Should the Military Regress to Battlefield Press Restrictions?

Anthony Moreland – In Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218, 86 S.Ct. 1434 (1966) the Court held that the First Amendment supported the “free discussion of governmental affairs.” However, there is no standing that supports a right of media access to U.S. military units in combat. Flynt v Rumsfeld, 355 F.3d 697 (D.C. Cir. 2004). Even so, a “tradition of cooperation between the military and the press can be documented as far back as the Civil War.” Prior to the Vietnam War, media members enjoyed incredible amounts of freedom in their access to operations, and their ability to report freely. The integrity of this open relationship was compromised during the Vietnam War, “as news coverage critical of both the war and the military engendered tensions.”

Following the war in Vietnam, the press’ presence on the battlefield went through various stages. In Grenada, President Reagan absolutely barred the press from reporting military operations. Subsequently, the military allowed press pools to cover operations in Panama during the first Gulf War. The schematic then changed to the “turning of the tables” in Haiti and Somalia – this strategy delivered the press to the war zone before the military arrived. In more recent conflicts, we shifted to a system of the embedded press, “in which journalists are attached to, and travel with specific military units.”

Discernibly, the interests in wartime reporting are subjective and vary across a wide spectrum – sometimes converging in the middle. For the most part, the media’s interests are micro in nature and lay in viewership, quality of information, credibility and public satisfaction in the information and in the format that it is relayed. While the military’s interests tend to be more macro and concern operational security, keeping the media from compromising that focus, military credibility and supporting informational operations.

With the advancing technological abilities of the media, “Television news has become an instrument of power in a new kind of warfare. The “CNN factor” has the potential to influence policy because of its ability to broadcast events live.” Viewers are drawn to certain types of stories and individual media outlets because of the journalistic poise of the correspondent and their ability to relay what appears to be first-hand, accurate and credible information. The competition among media outlets cause “individual reporters to compete for journalistic prizes and acknowledgements, as well as for promotions and choice assignments.”

Is it this competitive nature that causes seemingly credible and honest journalists to “misremember” key facts and events during their reporting? Cue the recent Brian Williams’ misremembering’s of wartime reporting, and now the claims of story fabrications surrounding Fox News Host Bill O’Reilly. Is the American public turning seemingly normal media correspondents/journalists into celebrities? And with that status, are these celebrities forced to deliver the most heart wrenching, dramatic and Hollywood movie style reporting – to the exclusion of accurate information?

So, we are left to wonder if there are any consequences for journalists who for deceive the American public via lies or admissions in reporting? “Americans lie about their military records …[w]ith such regularity that a couple of years ago Congress passed a law prohibiting such acts of ‘stolen valor’.” It should be noted however, that the Supreme Court struck down the law as “injurious to the First Amendment.” Scholar W. Joseph Campbell opined that the “the allure of a hero’s status can be irresistible.” And, unfortunately, there is no licensing authority for journalists. The profession has ethical standards. However, absent any means to enforce them, the press is free to inform or misinform however they see fit. In a case involving Fox News, a Florida State Court of Appeals held the FCC’s policy against distorting the news did not rise to the level or a law or regulation. New World Communications of Tampa, Inc. v. Akre, 866 So.2d 1231 (2003).

Most devastating concerning the lies, or misremembering’s of these celebrity journalist’s is the disservice that it inflicts on the freelance journalists who truly risk their lives to bring news to the American people. These young men and women are the ones who report in conflict zones. They are more often than not inexperienced, paid little to nothing for stories and have very minimal security. In 2014, the International News Safety Institute reported that 109 journalists and media staff had been killed.

If we can take away the incentive for press celebrities, maybe then we will realize reporting for its art and not for its monetary gain and notoriety. Or simply, we put a stop to the embedded press mechanism.

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