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All disquiet on the Western front

One skeptic's report from deep inside the military journalism complex


Ashley Walters

On the morning of his fifty-second birthday, Bob Bergen, a veteran military journalist, sat on his sofa perusing the Globe and Mail when a friend called to tell him to turn on his TV. He was dumbfounded by what he saw. "I saw the first plane hit the tower and I thought, holy crap, oh, my God." For Bergen, it was a sign.

Five days before, Bergen had sat in a boardroom with members of the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI), a Calgary-based think tank that studies Canadian defence and security. On that afternoon, Bergen was asked to solve a specific problem: how to influence media coverage of the military. "They said, 'We don't think Canadian journalists do a very good job covering the Canadian Forces,'" he recalls. "They don't do the good job that you do. What would you do to fix it?'" Bergen proposed designing and teaching a course that would train journalists how to report on the military. But it was what he saw on the morning of September 11, 2001, that gave his mission a new sense of urgency.

"September 11 happened and I went, 'Holy crap.' You know what? September 11 is my birthday, this is almost destiny, that I'm destined to do this." Within eight months, CDFAI was awarding scholarships to young journalists to fly to Calgary and have Bergen teach them the ins and outs of reporting on the armed forces. The Canadian Military Journalism Course was born.

Seven years later on a bright morning in May, I sit at a C-Train stop in Calgary with several other young women. We're among the dozen reporters awarded scholarships to participate in the annual CMJC. The conversation strays between boyfriends, travelling, school projects, graduation and fashion. One woman giggles as she extends her legs to display the brown cowboy boots she's donned in honour of her visit to Cowtown. No one talks about the military.

Curiosity, coupled with cynicism, drew me here. For me, the tangled relationship between the military and the media raises some important questions: What happens to journalists' objectivity when a special interest group, like the military, actively trains them? Does that "objectivity" really exist to begin with? And when large mainstream media companies share a set of special interests with the military, doesn't that mean that, to some degree, all journalism is embedded?

The next morning marks the first official day of the course, and my fellow students and I have assembled around a makeshift conference table at the Centre for Strategic and Military Studies at the University of Calgary. The faces around the room look like those at many contemporary Canadian newsrooms: mostly female, mostly white, mostly young-several of my classmates will be attending their undergraduate convocations when the course is over.

At a few minutes past 9 a.m., Bob Bergen enters the room. He is 58 years old and has a ruddy complexion accentuated by his white dress shirt and pink tie.

"I'm here to tell you that the military manages the news media. I'll show you so you'll know when you're being managed," he says. Tap tap tap-my fingers type out his words: I'm eager to record what a course, organized by a think tank with links to the DND, has to say about how journalists are managed by the military. The veteran reporter to my left places a recorder on the table in front of her. To my right a young man slumps in his seat and scans the room, while others stare into their coffee. (Later in the week a speaker smiles at me and says, "You know, you don't have to write everything down. There's not going to be a test later.")

Bergen says we're here to "learn how to learn about the military." He hands each of us a fourinch white plastic binder with our name in bold black font, above a photograph of a tank. Our task: to familiarize ourselves with its guts, our guide to the military. The binder bulges with documents detailing the language, culture and customs of the Canadian Forces. We have access to the Queen's Regulations and Orders, the Canadian Forces media embed contract, military rank structures, departments, terminology and acronyms, media clippings and suggested reading lists.

Journalists and the military have always had a contentious relationship, which can be seen in their clearly divergent missions: one is to report events; the other to influence them. More than ever before, both camps are struggling to achieve their objectives. In 2007 the U.S. Army's operational security guidelines grouped reporters as "non-traditional" national security threats-in the same category with warlords, drug cartels and al Qaeda. The International Federation of Journalists recently condemned the U.S. military's targeting and killing of journalists in Iraq, calling for an independent investigation into the incidents. In September 2008 the Canadian Press reported that an Afghan freelance journalist, labelled an enemy combatant and jailed for 11 months in a U.S. military prison, claimed that the Canadian Forces reported him as a security risk and were responsible for his arrest. But we don't talk about these events during the course. We're here to learn how to work with-not against-the military.

The Centre for Military and Strategic Studies receives grants from CDFAI to organize and host the journalism course. Bergen explains that CDFAI chose to offer the course through the university tolend it "credibility, as opposed to being offered by a think tank, though the office of the university is supported by the think tank." CDFAI President Bob Millar says the content of the Military Journalism Course is in no way influenced by the Forces, by government, or by CDFAI's private donors (among which are some of the world's largest military defence contractors: General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin Canada, and Com Dev, to name a few).

The next nine days are divided between classrooms, military bases and bars. We talk to DND public affairs officers, recently embedded journalists, retired colonels and majors, reservists and retired major generals. We visit Canadian Forces Base Wainwright, the only national military facility that houses a replica of Kandahar province, where journalists and actors are hired to participate in military training scenarios. We watch the Calgary Highlanders strip and load their C7 rifles before joining them in their officers' mess for pints. We climb into Leopard computer gunnery trainers and test our skills at missile systems simulations.

But most importantly we're encouraged to be critical. "The students will be challenged to look at their subject areas in conventional and unconventional ways to better offer their reader a diversity of views and opinions on military issues," the course description reads.

Our first speaker, DND public affairs officer Lieutenant (Navy) Desmond James served as part of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2007, working closely with journalists embedded with the Canadian Forces as well as international media in Afghanistan. James looks young despite his greying head of hair. He points to a PowerPoint slide titled "Myths and Half-truths" about the military. The military does not control the media, James says. Public affairs officers do not pick and choose which stories are covered or prohibit journalists from reporting without their supervision. "We don't restrict info for the sake of restricting info," he tells us.

But that doesn't mean journalists are completely free to report whatever they want from a war zone. Journalists travelling with the Canadian Forces need to know when to shut up: if they're embedded with the Forces, their embed agreement places strict limitations on what they can report, allowing any subject to be restricted at any time. The military provides journalists with access in exchange for censorship. In other words, print no evil.

Throughout James' lecture, Bergen sits quietly at the back of the room. He is aware of the Canadian Forces' censorship of the media. In fact, he has publicly criticized them for it. During a 2007 interview on the CBC Radio series Spin Cycles, Bergen compared the current limited coverage of Afghanistan to the 1999 Kosovo air war in which "the Canadian Forces used the catch-all of operational security to ban the Canadian news media from even stepping foot on the base." In Bergen's view, that ban meant that the Canadian public had "absolutely no idea what the Canadian Forces did there." Bergen told listeners "...my fear is that we're seeing this replicated in Afghanistan now." But today, as James talks, Bergen is silent.

Bergen also refrains from commenting on what Calgary Herald reporter Kelly Cryderman tells us the next day about her first stint as an embed with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. She is earnest and smiles frequently during her talk. "Goingto Afghanistan has become part of the Canadian journalism experience in many ways," she tells us. Cryderman later flicks through a slideshow and pauses on a photo of her standing beside a local Afghan warlord. "He's like a mafia boss," she says. "Of course I had to get my picture with him." Looking at the photograph, what I see is an ineffectual journalist staring back: free to pose with warlords but not to print their stories.

"A big story that Canadian journalists, even Canadian journalists like [Globe and Mail Afghanistan correspondent] Graeme Smith, have a really hard time getting at is the characters who the Canadians are working with who are pretty unsavoury," she laments, alluding to the military's work with Afghan mercenaries and militias, who are often paid to guard reconstruction sites and accompany soldiers on missions. "I think they could be doing more," she says of the Canadian military's work in Afghanistan. "It's very tough because you can't do everything the Canadian way there, you can't have exactly the same standards, because you're starting from nothing. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have any standards," she tells us. Aside from the restrictions outlined in the Canadian Forces embed agreement, Cryderman says she never felt limited in what she could report. "I was never censored for anything... There's no censorship. They wouldn't read your stories," she says.

Not everyone feels that way. A few days later, Bill Graveland, an award-winning Canadian Press reporter who has covered the Canadian Forces for three years, offered an alternate view of life as an embed in Afghanistan. According to Graveland, the Canadian military has "these giant satellite dishes everywhere," which among other functions allow communications between journalists to be closely monitored. "They check emails and eavesdrop on telephone calls. They watch everything we do. They know immediately what we've written or what we're saying. You've got to be very careful."

In fact, Graveland tells us of times when he's been warned by military personnel "that if I didn't start toeing the line that I wouldn't be allowed to come back." He describes an environment where journalists share tents with military public-relations officials who are like "real public-relations people, They can send you home... They don't like anything that's perceived to be even moderately critical."

To Graveland, the rights of an embedded journalist have become severely limited. "It used to be you could wander around the base, interview anybody you wanted, as long as you weren't asking operational security questions. And suddenly [there] was this public-relations officer [who] had to be sitting there recording you while you're doing the interview," Graveland tells us. "They are really, seriously trying to manage the media."

"Anybody in the military that thinks they can spin the story or hide the facts really has to get into this century," says Mike Capstick, a thinlipped retired colonel and former first commander of Canada's Strategic Advisory Team - Afghanistan. Capstick is a friend of Bergen's and an associate at the CMSS. He has authored articles in the Globe and Mail as well as the Ottawa Citizen on Canada's mission in Afghanistan. Capstick is here to talk to us about Afghanistan but the conversation quickly turns to his definition of irresponsible journalism.

"There's been a shitload of irresponsible reporting coming out of Afghanistan," he says, citing Graeme Smith's March 2008 Globe and Mail series "Talking to the Taliban." According to Capstick, Smith's piece lacked context because he failed to procure a "representative sample" of the Taliban. "Who are these guys from the Taliban? From my reading of things, they were all low-level foot soldiers-they don't understand who their allegiances were to. It was presented with no strategic context." Capstick argues that because there are "maybe up to 10,000 insurgents" in Afghanistan, Smith's articles cannot possibly have procured a representative sample. Capstick also says that Smith's researcher (an Afghan with access to areas too dangerous for Western journalists who conducted interviews on Smith's behalf) could have swayed the responses according to his own biases.

Listening to Capstick's criticisms leaves me thinking that the only alternative to Smith's self-described "unscientific survey" is to embed with the militarya choice that isn't known to cultivate the most innovative forms of reportage. But embedding might notseem like such a bad idea, when remaining outside the wire can be so dangerous. For instance, CTV's Jawed Ahmad is an example of a non-embedded journalist who was held without charge for months on end in a U.S. prison for doing his job: Ahmad was deemed a terrorist threat because he was carrying Taliban contact numbers and video footage.

For someone who values context, Capstick doesn't seem to mind excluding it from his version of the last 30 years in Afghanistan, which omits any mention of Western involvement. There is no talk of the U.S. funding Islamic fundamentalists to fight the Russian army, nor of President Reagan's 1985 speech when he hosted the Afghan Mujahiddin at the White House, labelling the group "the moral equivalent of America's founding fathers." When I asked Bergen about what I thought were glaring omissions, he sighs. "History is a dog's breakfast," he says.

In the global war on terror, where is Canada headed if this kind of reporting becomes the accepted norm? Having helped its NATO allies occupy Afghanistan, the Canadian military and the government rely on positive media coverage to shore up public support for the mission. Meanwhile, pervasive newsroom cuts and scarce funding for war correspondents have resulted in reporters relying on the military for safe access to war-torn regions. This symbiotic relationship has spawned training courses for journalists supported (either indirectly or directly) by the military, and in the last decade these courses have become a common way for journalists to prepare for work as embeds or to report on military issues. But how are they shaping the way the media reports on the military? Are they transforming society's watchdogs into military lapdogs? If the media effectively conditions the Canadian public to accept more foreign wars as the inevitable consequence of preserving our security, how many more wars are we in for?

On the morning of the last day of the course we're sitting around an oversized conference table that fills our small classroom; people want coffee. "Do you think we can leave to get some?" one woman asks. Bergen enters the room with a stack of papers under his arm: course-evaluation forms. After about 20 minutes of writing, the completed forms are piled in the centre of the table. Bergen smiles as he proudly hands each of us Centre for Strategic and Military Studies coffee mugs and hats. Next, an impromptu graduation ceremony ensues as we are called up one by one to the front of the classroom to receive our "certificate of achievement" for completing the course. Digital cameras flash along with smiles as those seated around the conference table clap. A woman dons her new Centre for Military and Strategic Studies cap while holding her diploma. She smiles for the camera.

After it's all over, I phone Bergen to talk to him about the course. I ask him if he was disappointed that, in a course about reporting on the military, made up of mostly young reporters about to embark on their careers, very few people actually asked any serious questions about, well, reporting on the military. "It was my expectation that [the students] would be far more engaged than many of them were," he told me. Like history, it seems, war reporting is also at risk of becoming a dog's breakfast. T

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