WASHINGTON — A couple weeks ago, a military brand I have never heard of published a story with the following headline: “Air Force public affairs exposes Spec. Ops aircraft to public despite OPSEC crackdown.”
By public, the article meant Defense News — specifically, air warfare reporter Valerie Insinna and Defense News Weekly host Jeff Martin, who spent time in Japan visiting Kadena Air Base, and indeed got an up-close look at the MC-130 operated by the 353rd Special Operations Group. By OPSEC crackdown, the writer is referring to the Air Force decision to slash access to media embeds, base visits and interview until it can put the entire public affairs apparatus through retraining.
To be clear, this wasn’t any violation of policy. It was indeed rare access, and I for one am not above basking in the glory of that fact. But what the writer of that article failed to check was the date of the coverage. It happened before the Air Force public affairs crackdown. If our people were to ask for such access today, odds are pretty high we’d be turned down.
So, why do I mention it? Not to shame the writer, I assure you. But instead to point to an example of how a military policy with little basis can create a whole lot of overreaction — even within the media itself.
For those that hadn’t heard, the Air Force decided to put a freeze on outreach in March, supposedly a move to improve operational security, to ensure loose lips don’t offer adversaries some insight into what makes the U.S. military superior. It’s another means of supporting the Trump administration’s emphasis on the great-power competition.
Or that’s what they say. I don’t buy it.
Much more likely than any effort to comply with the National Defense Strategy is that a couple stories left leadership displeased, not because they revealed anything truly classified or even sensitive, but because certain nuggets got out without the proper authorities’ okay.
The result? Shut it down.
Second, the rationale for the communciation shutdown even if sincere is weak. Cooperation between the media and government has always been done with discretion from both sides. There’s an understanding of the benefits to transparency, as well as a right for the public to know how its military is being operated, just as there’s a respect for national security by professional journalists. Neither journalist nor public affairs officer will last very long if either one doesn’t understand where lines exist and when not to cross them.
And quite frankly, if the military is on the hunt for statements made that perhaps show our hand more than leadership might deem appropriate, consider looking to the Oval Office rather than the media.
So then what’s the actual fallout? In the near term the policy has led to a lot of eye-rolling among journalists and chatter in newsrooms, since it obviously makes our jobs harder. Reporters work incredibly hard to establish a level of mutual trust with sources, so it’s frustrating to have a bureaucratic policy derail such efforts even if only for a period of time.
I know. I sound like I’m whining a little here.
But it’s more than that. This kind of policy goes beyond the typical — and I’d argue healthy — tensions between the media and government. And my personal displeasure is about a lot more than the need for our reporters to perhaps work a little harder or wait a little longer to get answers to their questions.
This is quite simply a major step backwards in the relationship between the media and the Air Force, and further the Pentagon at large. It sends a clear message that when in doubt, keep quiet, and that is a message that will permeate beyond the Air Force to the other services. It’s not unlike the myths that continue to impede industry’s ability to work cooperatively with defense and civilian agencies: To avoid any hint of impropriety, keep your distance.
But the difference with media is that we are often more than capable of still writing the story — even if government does it’s best to stonewall. Gone are the days of the Kennedy administration and prior, when reporters saw a great deal but remained “discreet” under some false theory that it was best for the country. Reporters will get the story. And the Air Force and any other service do themselves, their people and the American public a great disservice by preventing their stories from being adequately told.
In the mean time, we’ll keep asking questions.