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Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates conducts a press briefing on the replacement of U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the war in Afghanistan.
Following the publication of "The Runaway General," some journalists wondered how the Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal would change how they report on the military. Would officers be afraid to talk to the media? Would war correspondents lose access?
(On All Things Considered last week, Stephen Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, weighed in on the subject here.)
At a Department of Defense news briefing, for instance, Tony Capaccio, a Pentagon correspondent for Bloomberg News, asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if they were "worried about the fallout from the McChrystal controversy; that military media relations ... will deteriorate; that officers won't want to engage because they'll say, 'Hell, see what happened to McChrystal? He's on the cover of Rolling Stone.'"
What do you tell that kind of mindset about the need to engage the press? I mean, is the press to blame in this case?
Gates was quick to respond.
"Not at all, in my view," he said. "General McChrystal has the responsibility for this. And I think that to let it impact the relationship I have with the press would be a mistake."
I have communicated the message ever since I got to this job, to both civilian and military leaders, that the press is not the enemy. And when there is a story that is critical, the first thing to do is to go out and find out if it’s true, and if it is, then do something about it, and if it’s not, gather the data to show that it’s not true, but don’t get into a defensive crouch. And I hope that people won’t do that.
I think that people clearly need to make smart decisions about how they engage, the circumstances in which they engage, what they talk about. And there is, in my view, a need for greater discipline in this process on our part and a greater understanding that somebody who is giving an interview in Europe may not understand that something they’re saying has an impact in Asia. And so we need to — we need to be a little smarter about how we approach this. But I would say those are improvements that are needed on our part.
Last Friday, Gates distributed a memo to his colleagues at the Pentagon, with guidance on how to interact with the media. (Politico obtained and published a copy of it.)
"It is important that the news media have appropriate access to many aspects of DoD activities and operations," he wrote. "Consistent with applicable laws and procedures, we are obliged to ensure that the information provided to them is timely, accurate, credible, and consistent. I have said many times that we must strive to be as open, accessible, and transparent as possible."
At the same time, I am concerned that the Department has grown lax in how we engage with the media, often in contravention of established rules and procedures. Wehave far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providinginformation which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized, or uninformedby the perspective of those who are most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra-agency policy processes, operations, and activities.
You can read the entire memo after the jump.