I settled down to watch 60 Minutes this Sunday before dinner as usual and found myself swept up in a wave of nostalgia. Pentagon correspondent David Martin had the leading feature, a first-person account of the attack on the Al-Asad airbase in Iraq. Not only was it a compelling storyline, but I was also eager to armchair quarterback the piece like the recovering Navy public affairs officer that I am.
I was not disappointed. Martin was given phenomenal access to the to all the key players who responded to, and experienced, the attack that took place on January 8, 2020, in response to the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Quasem Soleimani. Martin interviewed Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East about the decision to kill Soleimani, the ensuing actions taken under his direction to prepare for Iranian retaliation, and what it was like watching the attack unfold. The interview took place in U.S. Central Command headquarters, in the same war room where McKenzie oversaw these operations.
From there, Martin’s story focused on the men and women on the ground at Al-Asad. Viewers heard from the junior officers who received the first intelligence reports that Iran was pointing the bulk of its ballistic missile fleet at them; the field grade officers who had to make the decision to partially evacuate the base, and who would go and who would stay; and emotionally, from the non-commissioned personnel on security patrol who were outside the bunkers when the missiles hit.
Martin’s story is riveting journalism, and I encourage you to watch it if you did not see it when it aired. And it showed tremendous cooperation between the Department of Defense and Martin. As someone who helped coordinate similar stories back in the 1990s working in the Navy Pentagon, I enjoyed picking apart the mechanics of how the piece came together. But it begs the question: Why did it need to air at all? Why does the military need to jump through hoops because a journalist has a story idea?
The United States is unique in that we have an entire corridor of offices dedicated for our free press in our military headquarters. That’s right. CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, Fox News all have offices in the E-ring of the Pentagon. I learned working with NATO in recent years that most of our European allies have no such similar arrangement; several nations actually proscribe the military from giving any interview to the media. The Department of Defense codifies its Principles of Information in an official directive with this underlying principle: “Information shall be made fully and readily available, consistent with statutory requirements, unless its release is precluded by national security constraints or valid statutory mandates or exceptions.”
To Pentagon leadership it is a given that troops and their families, as well as the American people, are entitled to information about their military—or as stated in the Principles of Information—“A free flow of general and military information shall be made available, without censorship or propaganda.” These principles have been in place for decades. This is transparency before transparency was cool. And there is more to this than taxpayer transparency. As the world’s democratic superpower, America must show the world that its colossal military operates in the light.
A free flow of information does not mean that there is no strategic element to public information released by the Pentagon. Iran remains a very real threat. It is very much in our strategic interest to run a detailed piece, visible to the world, showing that Iran is using Google Maps for target acquisition, while U.S. surveillance and intelligence is far superior and allowed U.S. forces to withstand a ballistic missile attack of a scale never before seen with no loss of life. The discussion of Soleimani’s death is a reminder to Iran that the U.S. chooses when, and how, to engage; the U.S. launched precision rocket strikes at Iranian militants in Syria three days before the 60 Minutes piece aired.
I was commissioned in the Navy three months before my 21st birthday, and this is how I have been trained to do public relations. Nearly three decades later, this is still how I work. I like to work with the media. I understand stories will not always go my, or my client’s way; but I also understand if we don’t work with reporters covering our issues, our side of the story will go untold. In a crisis, the media becomes a crucial ally in transmitting information to the public and it is vital that information be provided quickly, accurately and in a format that is easily accessible.
The practice of journalism as I describe it here is in jeopardy. Local newsrooms continue to close for decentralized efficiency; vertical integration in the media industry means just a few large companies own dozens, or hundreds, of media outlets. Simultaneously, the digital explosion of the last 20 years, and subsequent flood of new information outlets, allows us to cherry-pick our information based on emotional bias, not fact. This particular phenomenon is the target of a multitude of “bad actors”—some state sponsored—who push out constant streams of hyper-partisan “news” that draw readers in with emotional hooks and no factual basis.
Good reporting matters. Cooperation by government leaders committed to truth is vital. Watch 60 Minutes when you can. Make sure you support your local newsroom (Have you renewed your Independent subscription? Journalists’ jobs depend on it.). And hold your government accountable for a “free flow of information.”
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.