Best Defense

The Pentagon and the press: Reporters resent the SecDef, distrust the Air Force

Over the past several weeks, I surveyed the members of the Pentagon Press Corps on their thoughts about the current state of their relationship with the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the four-star service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

The_Scream

 

By Joseph M. Plenzler
Best Defense guest columnist

Over the past several weeks, I surveyed the members of the Pentagon Press Corps on their thoughts about the current state of their relationship with the Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the four-star service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

Twenty-four members of the national defense media took my survey. Here are the worrisome highlights of what I discovered:

— Only 22 percent believe that senior defense officials are doing a good job balancing transparency with security.

— Only 16 percent believe that the Department of Defense (DoD) has a culture of openness.

— 72 percent of the media are dissatisfied with their access to senior leaders.

— 78 percent believe that the DoD officials are violating the department’s stated policy of “Maximum disclosure with minimum delay” for the release of information.

— Only 39 percent of reporters trust the information they receive from DoD officials.

While there has most always been a healthy tension between the government and the press, it’s pretty clear that the relationship in the Pentagon is in a slump.

I also asked the members of the press corps to rank these defense “CEOs” from best to worst in terms of keeping them informed and perceived trustworthiness. Here’s what they said.

Admiral Jon Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, was the best at keeping the press informed followed by Generals Mark Milley and Bob Neller (tied for 2nd place); General Mark Welsh was fourth, General Joe Dunford was fifth, and Mr. Ash Carter, Secretary of Defense was last.

It is notable that the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff held their first joint press conference on February 29, 2016 — fully five months after the Chairman was installed. The Chairman was also noticeably absent in on December 3, 2015 when the Secretary of Defense made a historic policy decision on the integration of women throughout the force. Traditionally, the Chairman appears next to the Secretary of Defense when major policy changes are announced. Clearly things are off course if the top two leaders in the defense establishment are viewed as being the least accessible. As the senior defense officials, it is the duty of the Secretary to represent the defense policy of the administration and the duty of the Chairman to represent the views of the service chiefs in his advice to the Secretary and the President.

Frequency of engagement is just one vital element in a relationship. Trust is the other. So I asked the press to rank the same set of leaders by perceptions of trustworthiness, and the results were surprising. While the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs ranked at the bottom of accessibility, he ranked first in perceptions of trustworthiness. One might assume that this is based as his reputation as a combat commander during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and most recently as the International Security Assistance Force commander in Afghanistan. Dunford was followed by Milley, Welsh and Neller tied for third, Richardson was fourth, and again, Mr. Ash Carter ranked last.

While the press is long on General Dunford’s stock at present, it will be interesting to see if he maintains his position over the next three years as Chairman without increasing interaction with the press corps. The Beltway game is one of access and information. When one ceases to be a source of information for the media, they rightly tend to go elsewhere, and some gadfly is always present to fill the vacuum and tell an organization’s story. When the CEO isn’t at the forefront of this effort, others will step in to paint the canvas with a wide array of color. At that point, it is unfair to complain if one’s institutional portrait begins to resemble Edvar Munch’s Scream.

Understanding opinions of top defense leaders is one thing, but I also wanted to know what the press thought of the defense public affairs offices that directly represent our senior defense officials.
I asked the press corps to rank the various PA offices in terms of accuracy, completeness, timeliness, professionalism and trustworthiness relating to the information they received.

Here’s what I found.

  • Provides the most accurate information:
    • Best: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • #2 Navy
    • #3 Office of the Secretary of Defense
    • #4 Marines
    • #5 Army
    • Worst: Air Force
  • Provides the most complete information:
    • Best: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • #2 Office of the Secretary of Defense
    • #3 Navy
    • #4 Marines
    • #5 Army
    • Worst: Air Force
  • Most timely in responding:
    • Best: Navy
    • #2 Office of the Secretary of Defense
    • #3 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • #4 Marines
    • #5 Army
    • Worst: Air Force
  • Most Professional:
    • Best: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • #2 Navy
    • #3 Office of the Secretary of Defense
    • #4 Marines
    • #5 Army
    • Worst: Air Force
  • Most trustworthy:
    • Best: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • #2 Navy
    • #3 Office of the Secretary of Defense
    • #4 Marines
    • #5 Army
    • Worst: Air Force

While generally reflecting the trends of leadership, it is readily apparent that the Marine Corps Public Affairs effort, once decried by President Truman as a “propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s” has lost much of its game; and clearly there is more backstory behind the Air Force’s poor rankings in every category. The Navy has done a fine job over the years in investing in the professional development and career progression of their public affairs personnel from ensign to admiral and it is no surprise that they lead all of the other services in this regard.

The bottom line is that when the leaders who sit atop our $583 billion defense establishment don’t engage the media and don’t tell the public what’s going on, they can actually damage our democracy by leaving the public ill prepared to engage in meaningful national conversations – especially elections.

The best and most efficient way they can do this is by engaging with the media and telling us the truth. It is evident that they can do more to improve their accessibility and tell us what they are up to. As citizens and taxpayers, we deserve better.

Joe Plenzler is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. He spent his last five years on active duty working in the Pentagon as an advisor to the Commandant of the Marine Corps and worked closely with the defense media.

Image credit: Edvard Munch/National Gallery, Norway/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola