A haphazard approach causes significant harm to the war effort: Coverage of repeated televised apologies overshadows progress made by troops on the ground, and effective Taliban propaganda continues without adequate repudiation. With an effective media/public relations policy, the military could leverage news organizations to be an invaluable resource in fighting the Taliban.
Despite what polemicists on both sides claim, the media has not been motivated by political bias in its coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, ratings – and the advertising dollars they command – have been the driving force shaping media coverage.
As the public’s attitude toward the mission in Afghanistan has soured, so, too has the tone taken by the media in its coverage of the war. News coverage is dominated by stories of corrupt Afghan officials and the newest trend, civilian deaths, leaving coalition commanders to engage in an endless cycle of public apologies.
Even during the fierce fighting last month in Marjah, Afghanistan, the media was filled with stories of civilian casualties, forcing repeated apologies and pledges of restraint from Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Therein lies the first problem with the US military’s media strategy: It is impossible to win a war if one spends half the time apologizing. Compounding this, pledges to avoid civilian deaths, short of a stop to all military operations, are unfeasible. What the military ends up with is a public relations disaster and essentially “wins the battle, but loses the war.”
Coalition troops may have scored a solid tactical victory in routing the Taliban from Marjah, but that triumph was overshadowed, even characterized, by coverage of civilian deaths and Gen. McChrystal shamefacedly appearing on TV to apologize. Worse, it will be another asset for the Taliban to use in its propaganda and recruiting campaigns.
As it stands now, however, the military’s PR incompetence makes the media akin to a lead weight on the shoulders of a marathon runner.