“Some days you’re the bug, some days you’re the windshield.” It was a sage piece of advice offered by a senior warrant officer early on in my military career. Regardless of your intentions, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way you expected.
That was the case recently for Army captain and public affairs officer Chase Spears, who penned a piece for the Modern War Institute intended to spur a discussion on the importance of a healthy relationship between the military and the media. Writing in response to an article from retired Admiral James Stavridis on the near-yearlong absence of a Pentagon press briefing, Spears defended the Defense Department’s decision, taking aim at “increasingly divisive politics” and the “blurring of the lines between professional journalism and punditry,” while castigating the media for not doing more to tell the military’s story or policing their own profession. That’s a lot to pack into a book-length dissertation, and far too much to express coherently in 1000 words.
On this day, Spears was the bug. An angry Twitter mob descended and the rest, as they say, was history. There would be no controlling the narrative on this day. Regardless of his intentions, things just didn’t turn out the way he expected. His story went viral in a matter of hours, but not in the way he hoped. He was a bug; Twitter was the windshield.
Briefing or Ambush? News or Narrative?
Frankly, there’s an argument to be made about the wisdom in conducting Pentagon briefings at a time when any briefing can devolve into an L-shaped ambush. But, as public servants we should – as Stavridis noted – “set an example of integrity, honesty, and accountability.” We have legions of highly-trained and experienced professional communicators in the Pentagon who are more than capable of negotiating a possible ambush, people who are typically the “human face of the military” the public needs to see. Those briefings are also a powerful tool in the strategic communication kit bag – they are a means to signal allies and adversaries alike, and as Stavridis noted, “the benefits outweigh the costs.”
There’s also an argument to be made about two-bit pundits muddying the waters of professional journalism. I think it’s fair to say that we all view the dregs of our respective professions with equal disdain. I have yet to meet a serious journalist who envies a so-called peer who pens unsourced gossip columns for a fringe website. But I’m reluctant to point to one of those journalists and charge them with policing their profession. As we know all too well, that is a task far easier said than done. Even with a system of military justice in our corner, we are constantly challenged to police our own profession. I don’t imagine it’s any easier when all you have in your corner is journalistic ethics.
There’s even an argument to be made about telling our story in the national press. In his piece, Spears shares an anecdotal conversation with a military correspondent, in which the journalist notes with some sense of irony that reporting on a military training exercise might be more compelling if “you would have staged a mass orgy up there.” Let’s be honest: that might sell in Florida, but only if alligators are involved.
Journalism is a highly-competitive field that is increasingly unforgiving. It’s not that reporters at the national level have “given up on covering the military,” it’s that one too many stories about winter training in Alaska and you might find yourself covering the traffic beat in Salina, Kansas. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, most of what we do in the military just isn’t that interesting. Someone once told me that if the film “Zero Dark Thirty” had been accurate, it would have been a 20-hour documentary about staff processes within the intelligence community. That’s not to say that the press corps won’t cover the release of a new doctrinal publication or spend a few days at the “intellectual center of the Army,” but the onus is on public affairs professionals to make such engagements worth a journalist’s investment in time and energy. That’s a skill that comes with experience, something that I suspect Chase Spears will discover with time.
As the Twitter mob began to disperse, I was reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910. That speech, considered by many to be Roosevelt’s most meaningful, would come to be known as “The Man in the Arena” because of one particular passage:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Though I disagree with much of what he wrote, Spears did something few of us do – he stepped into the arena. He stumbled, he erred, and when the dust settled his face was (figuratively) “marred by dust and sweat and blood.” At the worst, he failed. But he stepped into the arena, a place too often avoided by “those cold and timid souls” who would rather point out how the strong man stumbles than risk taking a stand. I might not agree with his words, but I respect the effort. For a fleeting moment, he was the man in the arena.