The war in Iraq is over. The one in Afghanistan will wrap up by the end of this year. But this week’s news from the Pentagon is about the perennial war they fight each year — the one for dollars, equipment and bases. This time, the military is proposing cuts, at least on paper, that may change how and when reporters cover the military.
In his response Monday to questions from the press, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said, “For the first time in 13 years we will be presenting a budget to the Congress of the United States that’s not a war-footing budget. That’s a defining budget because it starts to reset and reshape.”
Military journalists have known for some time this was coming, and their news organizations have adjusted their coverage of the military from a war-oriented one to barely a mention.
“I do worry there will be reduced coverage of the military as the wars in Iraq and soon Afghanistan more fully recede. Not for lack of media access but lack of interest,” said Bryan Bender, Boston Globe national security reporter.
Bender, who also is the president of the Military Reporters & Editors Association (this reporter serves on its board of directors), is wary that budget cuts could mean less access. The Pentagon’s proposed budget calls for a reduction in the Army’s personnel to 440,000 — a number not seen since pre-Pearl Harbor days.
“Pentagon leaders clearly expect that in the coming years U.S. forces, especially ground forces, will be waging war on a much smaller scale than in the last decade-plus. By definition that would mean fewer opportunities for reporters to embed with units and cover training or operations up close,” Bender said.
While the Army’s personnel cuts have yet to be fleshed out, they assuredly will include public affairs officers who have played a significant role in journalists’ coverage.
“PAOs are really the gatekeepers of information for us. Military reporters rely heavily on them to field our queries or set up interviews,” said Marine Corps Times staff writer Gina Harkins. “If there are less of them due to drawdowns or budget cuts, it could definitely slow things for us. It could also hinder our access to troops we need to interview, whether it’s a three-star general on a service-wide policy or a corporal on new training he’s going through.”
Asked if Pentagon cuts might affect Gannett or its military publications, USA TODAY’s Ray Locker, Washington enterprise editor, who supervises coverage of the military, said by email: “No, it won’t mean reduced coverage by USA TODAY or Gannett. It may complicate the process of getting answers to some questions or slow them down, but it won’t have any impact on how we continue to report on the military.”
The relationship between the military and Gannett’s independent military papers has not been friction-free. The Marine Corps Times recently went toe-to-toe with the Marines when the publication discovered its print edition was removed from Marine exchange check-out stands. The publication was due to come out with an investigative report spotlighting allegations Amos abused his authority. Emails from a senior Marine public affairs officer show the decision was a political one.
“Every couple of years, we have a falling out with Marine Corps Times that warrants consideration of some level of ‘ban’ from our facilities,” wrote Col. Chris Hughes, deputy director of Marine Corps public affairs at the Pentagon.
Other reporters have experienced some restrictive access by the Army that could change for better or worse as the cuts take hold.
“Part of it is tied to the growth of the public affairs force in the Army,” said (Colorado Springs) Gazette’s senior military reporter, Tom Roeder, whose paper’s circulation area includes Fort Carson, Peterson Air Force Base, NORAD and the Air Force Academy. “Ten years ago, public affairs was confined to the division level. Now every brigade has a public affairs staff telling their leaders how to deal with the media. Management of media engagement leads to secrecy.”
Roeder said as the Army transitions to garrison mode, they have drawn back engagement with the media, but he adds access depends on who is in charge. “Special Forces is getting more open,” he added. “They even invited coverage of a major training exercise in Africa, recently.”
Though the Pentagon’s budget is designed for a slimmed down Army, it doesn’t mean coverage will disappear altogether. Staff reporter Kristina Wong, who covers the military for The Hill, said: “I don’t know if there’s any push to shut off media access,” said the combat correspondent.
More likely, the remaining PAOs will have to juggle just as many media inquiries even as the military mission evolves.
“Fewer forces could also mean fewer press officers to respond to all types of media requests. But the U.S. military isn’t going away. If you listen to the generals, the set of security challenges are only going to grow more diverse,” Bender said.
Isaac Cubillos is the executive editor of Military Media Group and author of MilitaryReporter.net, a guide for journalists covering the military. He has covered the armed forces for more than 25 years as a reporter and editor. He serves on Military Reporters & Editors Association’s board of directors.