Ever since the American-led invasion of Iraq last year, when hundreds of journalists were embedded with military units, people in media circles have been debating whether journalists lose their professional detachment under such circumstances and begin to identify too closely with the troops they are covering. A journalist I met recently in Iraq told me that whenever he returns from a stint with the military, he gets a string of queries from journalism professors, wanting to know if embedded journalists have become, in effect, “whores” of the armed forces.
Having spent much of the past two years embedded with U.S. military units around the world, I find such fears to be a case of class prejudice. As with many forms of prejudice, the perpetrators are only vaguely aware of it, if at all.
Even with the embed phenomenon the media still manifest a far more intimate—one might say incestuous—relationship with politicians, international diplomats, businesspeople, academics, and humanitarian-relief workers than with the U.S. military. Given that all these groups push various political agendas, it is fair to ask why embedding has struck a raw nerve.
The common denominator among the non-military groups is that they derive from the same elevated social and economic strata of their societies. Even relief workers are often young people from well-off families, motivated by idealism and a desire for adventure. An American journalist would most likely find it easier to strike up a conversation with a relief worker from another Western country than with a U.S. Marine or soldier, especially if that Marine or soldier were a noncommissioned officer. This is not necessarily because the journalist and the relief worker share a liberal outlook; a neoconservative pundit would fare no better with the NCO, for example. The NCO is part of another America—an America that the media elite is blind to and alienated from.
I am not talking about the poor. The media establishment has always been solicitous of the poor, and through much fine reporting over the years has become intimately familiar with them. I am talking about the working class and slightly above: that vast, forgotten multitude of Americans, especially between the two cosmopolitan coasts, with whom journalists in major media markets now have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in a sustained, meaningful way except by embedding with the military.
The U.S. military—particularly at the level of NCOs, who are the guardians of its culture and traditions—is a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobacco. It is composed of people who hunt, drive pickups, use profanity as an element of ordinary speech and yet have a simple, sure, demonstrative belief in the Almighty. Though this is by and large a politically conservative world, neoconservatives might not feel particularly comfortable in it. Some neocons, who have taken democracy and turned it into an ideological ism, wouldn’t sit well with Army and Marine civil-affairs and psy-ops officers who pay lip service to new democratic governing councils in Iraq and then go behind their backs to work with traditional sheikhs. The meat-and-potatoes military is about practicalities: it does whatever is necessary to, say, restore stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Army Special Forces work regularly with undemocratic warlords and tribal militias, and see no contradiction with their own larger belief in democracy. Arguing over abstractions and refining differences between realism and idealism is the luxury of a well-to-do theory class.
The military is an unpretentious environment in which, for instance, the word “folks” is commonly used for people both good and bad. When, after 9/11, President George W. Bush drew snickers from some writers for his reference to al-Qaeda terrorists as “those folks,” it was an indication not of Bush’s poor speech habits but of the regional and class prejudices afflicting the media establishment.
The starkly differing attitudes toward Bush that one encounters within the media and the military go to the heart of this class divide. You may not get much of a sense of it at the Pentagon, or at military academies such as West Point and Annapolis. The Pentagon is about as indicative of the rest of the military as Washington is of the rest of America; West Point and Annapolis are about as indicative of U.S. military schools as Harvard and Yale are of colleges and universities across the heartland. To know what soldiers, Marines, and other uniformed Americans think, visit the housing for young NCOs at a base such as Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Camp Pendleton, California; or Fort Hood, Texas. Visit the Army Sergeants-Major Academy in El Paso, Texas, or the Army and Marine infantry schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Twentynine Palms, California. Visit U.S. barracks and military chow halls around the world.
NCOs in these places appreciate President Bush, whatever his manifold weaknesses, for subjective cultural reasons. His voice is a clear, simple one that speaks of a clash between good and evil, between good guys and bad guys. Bush talks like a believer; he is unabashedly Christian. He says openly that it is all right to kill the enemy, which goes a long way with military fighting units. One Air Force master sergeant told me, “I reject the notion that Bush is inarticulate. He is more articulate than Clinton. When Bush says something, he’s clear enough that you argue about whether you agree with him or not. When Clinton talks, you argue over what he really meant.”
Bush, from an elite East Coast family, connects with sergeants and corporals in the same visceral, almost tribal way that I saw Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, a sophisticated European Jew who relaxed to the music of Chopin, connect with the tough, working-class Oriental Jews of Israel’s slums and development towns a quarter century ago. The Oriental Jews, like American NCOs, were looking not for subtlety or complexity but for clarity. How deeply does this man believe? Will he fight to the finish?
In a recent article in The National Interest, Samuel Huntington, of Harvard University, writes about the divide in American society between the elites, who are cosmopolitans, and the mass of citizens, who are nationalists. The media and the armed forces, respectively, are poster children for these two categories. The world of the media is just as easily defined as that of the military. Journalists are increasingly global citizens. If they themselves do not have European and other foreign passports, their spouses, friends, and acquaintances increasingly do. Whereas the South and the adjacent Bible Belt of the southern Midwest and the Great Plains dominate the military, and the only New Yorkers and Bostonians one is likely to meet in the barracks are from working-class areas, heavily Irish and Hispanic, the urban Northeast, with its frequent air connections to Europe, is where the media cluster. Whereas the military is a lower-middle-class world in which a too-prominent sense of self is frowned on, the journalistic world too often represents the ultimate me, me, me culture of today’s international elite.
The military and the media occupy distinct cultural and economic layers. For the military this doesn’t really present a problem. Its culture is appropriate to its task, which is to defend the homeland, through the violent use of force if necessary. The troops who do this require nationalism more than they do cosmopolitanism, though a bit more of the latter would certainly be healthy. They also require a religious spirit that is both martial and compassionate, a requirement that the Old Testament orientation of southern evangelicalism satisfies nicely. The soldiers I have met harbor no particular resentments. They are middle-class in their minds, whether or not they are in reality; the military offers a telling demonstration that class resentment is mainly an obsession of the elite.
But the media do have a problem. They are supposed to explain what is happening in a diverse world, which is difficult to do if journalists all hail from the same social and economic background. The media establishment may claim eclectic origins, but whether a journalist grew up in New York or Hong Kong or Mexico City matters less than you might think if in any case he is affluent and well educated: the New Yorker will have more in common with his colleagues from Asia or Latin America than he will with someone from a working-class background in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
To deny that this is an issue for the media is to deny a basic truth of writing: though journalists assume the mantle of professional objectivity, a writer brings his entire life experience to bear on every story and situation. A journalist may seek different points of view, but he shapes and portrays those viewpoints from only one angle of vision: his own.
The blue-collar element that once kept print journalism honest has been gone for some time. Journalists of an earlier era may have been less professional, but they were better connected with the rest of the country. The mannered intrigues of the well-heeled Washington and New York media world have come to resemble those of the exclusive Manhattan society that Edith Wharton chronicled a hundred years ago.
How many members of this world really know people in the active-duty military or the National Guard? The East Coast media’s social circle is much more likely to include aging sixties protesters than Vietnam veterans. Of course there are exceptions to all of this, but exceptions don’t cut it.
Yes, the editorial boards of prestigious newspapers regularly invite top military brass up to their offices, and a contingent of colonels are always studying at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and similar places. Furthermore, the military correspondents of the major newspapers are in a category by themselves in terms of considerable expertise and well-rooted personal relationships with military men and women. But such cross-fertilization does not go very deep in the larger scheme of things. Besides, generals and colonels are not really what the military is about.
So although some journalism professors may worry that military embedding is subverting the media, I would argue the contrary. The Columbia Journalism Review recently ran an article about the worrisome gap between a wealthy media establishment and ordinary working Americans. One solution is embedding, which offers the media perhaps their last, best chance to reconnect with much of the society they claim to be a part of.