According to the Politico, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has selected former ABC News correspondent Geoff Morrell to serve as the Pentagon’s new press spokesman. The official announcement of Morrell’s appointment is expected later this week. With the title of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Morrell will serve as the Pentagon’s primary press briefer, and officials spokesman for Mr. Gates.
Defense officials told the Politico that Gates wanted to hire a “working journalist” to serve as his spokesman, in an effort to improve relations between the Pentagon and the press corps. Since joining ABC News in 2000, Mr. Morrell has reported from the network’s Chicago bureau and the White House. He also covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq from CENTCOM’s forward headquarters in Qatar, according to his network biography.
As a reporter, Morrell’s work was not without controversy. The Center for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) faulted his December 2004 report on Palestinian children accidentally killed or injured during Israeli counter-terrorism operations. While carefully noting the number of Palestinian casualties, Mr. Morrell failed to mention the Israeli children who have been killed or injured in rocket attacks against their homes or schools. He also neglected to mention that some of Palestinian casualties were the product of Israeli counter-strikes against terrorist rocket attacks, launched from residential areas in Gaza.
While such reporting suggests a traditional, liberal bias, I’m more concerned about Morrell’s lack of military experience. Aside from his six-week stint in Qatar (and brief coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), I can’t find anything in his resume that suggests any familiarity or expertise in defense or military matters. Morrell appears to be a sharp guy (and I’m guessing he’s a quick study), but the ideal person to improve “military-media relations” would be someone who already understands both worlds. Surely, there are a number of retired public affairs officers–or even journalists–who have a grounding in both the military and media, and wouldn’t face such a steep learning curve as the Pentagon’s new spokesman.
But more importantly, there are larger public affairs and information issues facing both Mr. Gates and Mr. Morrell–issues that will (ultimately) determine if he’s the right choice for the job. Secretary Gates’ desire to improve relations with the media is well-founded; it’s been a goal for virtually every defense chief since the days of Henry Stimson. However, that objective has largely gone unrealized, for a variety of reasons.
First, there remains a wide gulf between soldiers and scribblers–at least those who work for MSM outlets. Troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have often complained that reporters failed to record their victories on the battlefield, while offering non-stop coverage of the latest bombings in Baghdad, or events like Abu Ghraib, that (in the larger scheme) weren’t as important as press reporting indicated. From their perspective, journalists believe that the military has painted an unrealistically optimistic picture of the War in Iraq, and responded slowly to reports of U.S. atrocities. As a former network journalist, Mr. Morrell may be able to improve relations with the traditional media, but decades of suspicion and distrust between the press and the military won’t evaporate overnight.
Secondly, both Geoff Morrell and Secretary Gates face challenges in how they define the “press” and establish their media relations programs. The War on Terror has witnessed a revolution in combat coverage, with the advent of citizen-journalists and expert bloggers like Michael Yon, Bill Roggio and Michael Fumento, among others. Yon, Roggio and Fumento have embedded with U.S. combat units on multiple occasions, producing war coverage that far exceeds the MSM in terms of detail, context and perspective. Military blogs–including many that originate from the war zone–have also attracted a significant audience, and the advent of video sites like YouTube have provided an outlet for troops and jihadists alike.
As the Pentagon’s next public affairs chief, Mr. Morrell needs to be at the forefront of efforts to utilize these diverse information channels, in addition to the MSM. Unfortunately, attempts to develop a comprehensive (and effective) public information strategy have been about as successful as the press relations effort. In recent years, DoD’s information campaigns have been ponderous, clumsy and occasionally contradictory, giving our adversaries an undeserved advantage in both the new and old media.
Consider the Defense Department’s response to the blogosphere. While some military commands–notably CENTCOM and JFCOM–have embraced bloggers, much of DoD remains unconvinced. A senior public affairs officer recently told me that the military’s target audience (18-34-year-old males) don’t rely on blogs for news and information, so it makes little sense for the armed services to monitor and interact with bloggers. Meanwhile, the Army implemented a revised information security regulation that appears to discourage bloggers within its ranks, and some milbloggers have complained about the difficulty in obtaining embed slots. As Secretary Gates principal advisor on media matters, Mr. Morrell needs to develop a better outreach program to the blogosphere, and ensure that all the armed services are onboard.
He also needs to weigh in on one most divisive conflicts within the public affairs community–the role of public information within the realm of information operations. Historically, PA officers have resisted efforts to utilize public information as part of the IO campaign, which also includes such measures as psychological operations, computer network operations and deception. PA leaders claim that “association” with those techniques would undermine their credibility. But, in a conflict where the enemy uses all information tools to relentlessly advance his message, it is probably necessary–even imperative–for public affairs to provide more support for the IO effort, emphasizing themes and messages that are based in fact.
To be a truly successful Pentagon spokesman in the information age, Mr. Morrell needs to think outside the box, and find better ways to advance the DoD message across the full media spectrum. Regrettably, the appointment of a MSM veteran to the Defense Department job suggests that both Secretary Gates–and Mr. Morrell–view “press relations” through the prism of the Pentagon briefing room. If that’s their concept of improved media relations, then their efforts are almost certainly doomed, no matter how smooth or polished the former network newsman might be.