News & Notes had a fascinating opportunity earlier this week to participate on a panel on the media... for Marines. Specifically, three of us journos spoke to Marines involved in both internal and external storytelling ... reports that go out TO Marines, and ones that go from Marines to the public ... especially on Iraq.
Our wrangler was Bob Long, a former Marine who volunteered during the Vietnam War, and did military reporting during his service. Now he's the Vice President and News Director of KNBC, the Los Angeles NBC affiliate.
And boy, is he hilarious. And pointed. And a great moderator/participant.
The other person on the panel was Andrew Breitbart, who runs Breitbart.com, a news aggregator. That basically means that he culls what he considers the best of the news and puts it on one site. As it turns out, it's a profitable business. He's also a conservative author/blogger. Very smart and VERY vocal.
As were the Marines. You have never been asked a question unless you have been asked by a Marine, standing at the back of the room, barking full volume, standing in what military folks call the "at ease" stance... which isn't very ease-y from a civilian perspective.
The Marines quizzed us on things including:
--the changing economics of media (as Bob put it, television news -- particularly network news -- is taking a bath; radio is holding steady; Internet is growing)
--whether it is ever fair for a journalist to print classified materials (I have never had to make a decision about classified materials, but I did mention my great respect for accessing de-classified materials through the National Security Archive. The NSA takes formerly classified materials and puts them online, including this set of documents from the Pentagon on how they planned to respond to the media during the war.)
--and how to reach more journalists (I suggested, among other things, that they come and join panels and give out materials at next year's Unity Convention of journalists of color, hosted by organizations including the National Association of Black Journalists)
The main sense I got was that the Marine Corps was taking a critical look at the U.S. media, trying to decide if media outlets were antagonistic or collaborative. As it turns out, they have incredible databases of video and text stories that they are willing to give to the U.S. media. They're just not sure if news outlets trust their materials, or even know about them.
Bob -- who himself was a Marine -- made an interesting point. He said that the Marines could not expect that the media would always buy what they were selling, AND argued that the relationship between government and reporters was often adversarial. But there was a difference between being respectfully adversarial and blindly dismissing each other.
For reporters like the ones on our show, covering the war and the military means that someone among our listeners is usually unhappy, someone feels their point of view was misrepresented. I told the Marines that we do our best to be fair, and part of being fair was being able to take criticism from all comers. I got the deep sense that they respected that ... and many came up afterwards to say they loved NPR or our show in particular.
There was one testy moment toward the end when Breitbart took me to task for using the phrase "journalists of color" while describing the Unity Convention. He said, in essence, that we are all American, and the kind of multiculturalism I was talking about was divisive.
I responded -- in good humor, but pointedly -- that reporting on race is part of my job. When the enlistment and re-enlistment of black soldiers drops by 40 percent ... and the figure for whites is a fraction of that ... it isn't multiculturalism. It's the facts.
And then I invited him to join NABJ. Maybe I'll even buy him a membership, once my next paycheck rolls in.