War and Peace in a Virtual World

By Rear Admiral Brent Baker, U.S. Navy (Retired)

I am concerned about the next war and its public information aspects. If we focus too much on Cable News Network (CNN)-style satellite television and media pools, such as we had in the 1991 Gulf War, we are walking backward. Tomorrow's crisis will be covered by a new group of international multimedia giants—such as the Microsoft-NBC cable television and cyberspace network and the new global Fox News Channel—that didn't exist in 1991. CNN will remain a player, but the media player mix will be different—and much more crowded.

New communications technologies and giant media conglomerates will create a different information environment. Using a combination of cable and satellite television news services and Worldwide Web news sites, individual citizens, military families, and even the bad guys will be able to call up the in-depth news they seek—on demand, 24 hours a day.

In the next war or peacekeeping operation, the media will be more independent and better equipped, and the U.S. military will not have the control it had over the media in the Gulf War. Future governments—U.S., NATO, or United Nations—may find themselves fighting the war of words and images at a digital disadvantage.

The Transition to Broadcast

I served in Vietnam in 1968-69 and again in 1971. More than 500 reporters covered the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of freedom of journalistic and diplomatic movement. That was the last war in which the government would not have to worry about having to react at the speed of light. There were no satellite or live television feeds from either Saigon or Hanoi. In those days, battlefield film (and later videotape) usually was flown to the United States before it was aired. By the time it was broadcast, it was a few days old; there was time to think and to send a heads-up message from the field to Washington. We could tell our leaders that one of the three U.S. television networks had a story coming that they needed to focus on.

Yet, those dramatic—delayed—images of Vietnam still had an important impact on both military and foreign policy. I did not recognize it at the time, but what we were seeing in Vietnam was the transition of journalistic power from print to broadcast media. Of course, during Vietnam, the three broadcast networks were still national—not global—in reach, so their impact primarily was domestic. This is no longer true.

In 1980, ten years after I left Vietnam, CNN was born. In 1981, the first mass-produced desktop IBM digital computers appeared in the United States. At the time, no one realized the major impact—in terms of communications and international relations—these technological changes would have. A decade would pass before we truly began to understand.

In 1991, 20 years after I left Vietnam, we were fully into the war in the Gulf. We experienced the constant media chatter and images of CNN, with Peter Arnett live from Baghdad and play-by-play reports of Scud attacks. One hundred and twenty-five nations around the world were plugged into CNN International, from Baghdad to Moscow to Washington. This was what came to be known as the "CNN factor"—world leaders using satellite television to communicate with other world leaders; military leaders getting intelligence on the condition of prisoners of war and bomb damage assessment from CNN. This was decision making at the speed of light. There was little time to think, to craft diplomatic replies. That is what I remember about the impact of satellite television technology in the Gulf War.

Running parallel to these changes in news technology, a major cultural shift was occurring in the relationship between the U.S. government and the U.S. news media during the period from Vietnam to the Gulf War.

In the early Vietnam War years, American reporters actually trusted the public information officers, and we traded a lot of information. By 1969-71, however, as the reality that we were abandoning the war was sinking in, and as the U.S. government continued to issue rosy press releases, the cheerleading media stopped and the critical reporting intensified. In his book Once Upon a Distant War , William Prochnau describes the interesting convergence of the growing power of television reporting and the growing distrust of government by the journalists. He says of the new breed of Vietnam correspondents:

They would establish the skeptical standards for a new generation of war correspondents-and television as well. These provocative, new, adversarial standards that broke from the old and would be used to chronicle America's disaster in Vietnam and events long after.

There was another irony: President Richard Nixon, who finally pulled us out of Vietnam, solidified the distrust with his Watergate lies. As former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee said in his 1995 book, A Good Life :

Watergate had proved that they [government] weren't playing by the rules.... journalism was forever changed by the assumption—by most journalists—that after Watergate government officials generally and instinctively lied when confronted by embarrassing events.

Post-Gulf War

Post-Gulf War events have changed the rules of mass communication again—and much more significantly than in the period from Vietnam to the Gulf War. Digital television, cyberspace, and the 1996 government deregulation of telecommunications have led to major changes in the content, economics, and ownership of mass communication and telecommunication businesses.

In his 1991 book, Three Blind Mice , Ken Auletta tells how the new corporate owners of the three U.S. broadcast television networks ruined the news operations in the late 1980s by focusing on profits rather than on quality journalism. His words still ring true today. We are in the midst of mega-media merger mania. The globalization of news media companies in terms of ownership and marketing is real.

Traditional print media companies that had moved to buy television stations in the 1970s and 1980s were moving at warp speed to cyberspace in the late 1990s. They are becoming electronic global media. Today, electronic versions of every major and some minor U.S. newspapers are in cyberspace. CNN has a web site, and broadcast radio and television are entering cyberspace with "webcasting."

Global partnerships and competition are common. The German and French telephone companies own 25% of Sprint's new global long-distance network. The British Broadcasting Corporation is moving into the U.S. radio news market. As a result of the Arab thirst for satellite television, born of the Gulf War, there are now three private Arab satellite television networks broadcasting in Arabic, English, and French. You can see "Good Morning, Jordan" in France. In Europe, today's economic war is a satellite digital pay-television war with European- and American-backed media partners slugging it out.

The net effect of all this media restructuring is that the global public will have more media options during war and peace—and more and more, they will get their information in nontraditional ways. Young adults in the United States watch less television, and they spend more time on their computers to get their information and entertainment.

I warn those in the State and Defense Departments that the reporters coming from this group are better trained than many of the government's own people. They know that the television camera or microphone is a loaded, precision-guided weapon in the information age. They are computer savvy and multimedia trained. They can go into government records with computer-assisted research methods that would make investigative reporters' eyes light up in envy. They are less dependent on the government's news releases or public affairs officers.

They also have been trained to use their desktop computers to work a wider global beat. They can land (via cyberspace) in a foreign country to cultivate "virtual sources." What makes them different is their information-age skills and global reach.

A real Gulf War story highlights the global reach that these young journalists desire. It also signals the declining power of the traditional networks, unless they go global. Just before Saddam attacked Kuwait in August 1990, CNN hired an unknown reporter from the Jerusalem Post . He was assigned to the Pentagon Press Corps, but still didn't know his way around the Pentagon when the Gulf War broke out. He was calling me and others in the Pentagon asking some very basic questions about the military. Then he went live on CNN, giving descriptions of what troops were moving and what it meant.

One day I was walking down the "correspondents' corridor" in the Pentagon when some Japanese tourists came along. Veteran CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin walked out of the CBS office, but the tourists didn't recognize him. CBS had no global reach. Then, out of the CNN office popped the new guy on the block, and all the Japanese cameras flashed as the tourists shouted, "There's Wolf Blitzer! Wolf Blitzer! Wolf Blitzer!"

In that instant, I recognized the global reach of CNN and its related international celebrity power. CBS and David Martin just couldn't compete with that.

Predictions for Future War and Peace

The Gulf War demonstrated the ability of government leaders to control events via the media pool, security review, and other media manipulation. It was the first real-time satellite television war, and government reaction time was shortened, but the fact remains that the Gulf's information war essentially was won by the government. The news media lost the initiative for independent reporting. For the most part, it was cowed by the military in the early 1990s.

I am convinced, however, that this will not necessarily be the case in the future. The media ownership has changed, and the number of powerful global media news players has increased. Digital direct broadcast television is here. Future governments will have less control over news coverage as we enter the information and cyberspace age.

My key predictions are:

  • Open and independent global reporting of future wars and crises will be the principal means of news media coverage of military and diplomatic operations.
  • Government-controlled media pools will be very limited, because journalists either will be on-scene already or will arrive in most crisis zones before the troops do.
  • Military Gulf War-style security review of journalists' work is out; it is too hard to enforce. The military or local government authority used to control access to international communications channels. Today, journalists no longer need the military's or the government's communications gear or blessing. They are better equipped, with new lightweight digital satellite and multimedia cyberspace gear. That means they can report independently from almost anywhere.
  • There will be more interactive communication between government leaders, soldiers, journalists, and the citizens back home. For example, I have exchanged e-mail with an officer in Bosnia, and published some of his observations on our college's web site-no bureaucracy, no media escort, no security clearance of the material.
  • The new generation of global media giants will be tough news adversaries. They will run global news operations that often have better global communications links than the U.S. military has. In fact, as the U.S. military uses more off-the-shelf commercial equipment and telecommunication links, it is becoming more dependent on these fewer, but more powerful commercial communication providers.

What does all this mean to those concerned with issues of war or peace?

In January 1994, Newsweek ran an article titled, "A Post-Modern President," that raised the question, "How does one establish authority—how does one lead now, given the false sense of intimacy and the very real cynicism that seem natural by-products of the information age?" The thrust of the article is that citizens are gaining more power in an information age—they now can see the military and political battlefields live, via satellite television or the Internet—and the traditional gatekeepers of information, such as government bureaucrats and news reporters, editors, or television producers, are therefore losing power.

We can see how this played out in Bosnia. In 1995, the United States deployed forces as part of NATO peacekeeping troops in Bosnia. Today, we are faced with a large-scale peacekeeping action, where the news media have been in-country many months before the U.S. military ever arrived. There was no need for a Department of Defense media pool to be flown into Bosnia; the media beat the NATO troops to the scene.

There is some good news here. Some experts say the media's reports may have triggered some governments' participation in the peacekeeping. The bad news is that news coverage too often is driving the timing of key governmental or military decisions.

In fact, the Internet became a military factor in Bosnia because the military chose to make it a player. Shortly after U.S. troops had been deployed to Bosnia, the Pentagon proudly announced that the Department of Defense had set up a "Bosnia Link" web site. Armed with a computer, web software, and Internet access, concerned military families, journalists, or anyone else can get peacekeeping status updates, view maps of the area, and send e-mail to the troops.

So, where are we today? The 15 April 1996 Newsweek reported on a new communications problem within the Israeli Defense Forces. Actually, their problem is too much communication: It seems that 90% of conscripts in one armored unit reported to camp with their own cellular phones. The magazine reported, "The army's already banned dialing while on duty (after soldiers in Lebanon ordered a pizza to the border)." This story reminds me of the false (but still famous) tale of the U.S. soldier in the 1983 Grenada invasion who used a pay telephone and his credit card to call his headquarters in the States, because he couldn't get a local fire request through using his military radio.

Also, in mid-April 1996, the Pentagon announced what many military people already knew: the U.S. military had created its own digital version of CNN. The Washington Post reported:

Military planners at computer terminals in Europe and the United States will be able to see live video images (and audio) of the ground in Bosnia—sent from an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft. . . using a new, online digital communication system scheduled to begin operation within two months.

Even with this new digital video system, however, not everyone gets to see the video live or unedited. It seems that there are NATO haves and have-nots. According to U.S. officials, the information must be distributed at different levels of security. Different information is released to NATO forces, to the Russians, and finally, to our own U.S. forces.

Meanwhile, at the press conference held to release this news about the new video and infrared Bosnia surveillance system called Predator, Deputy Director of the CIA Vice Admiral Dennis Blair stated, "We were playing checkers in Desert Storm, and we are playing Atari here.... The new system is the next step in the evolution of intelligence to our military forces."

That's a neat quote, but I wonder if anyone told Admiral Blair that Atari is out, and multimedia computers and the Internet are in. Microsoft's Bill Gates has said the new converged home information appliance will be a combination of your television, computer, stereo, CD player, and VCR. And you will be able to receive the information appliance's signal from a 18-inch dish, or from your broadcaster, or your cable television provider, or your telephone company.

The CIA says the Predator system will fly only 12-15 hours over Bosnia. Perhaps they can fill in some of the time gaps using video from one of the commercial 24hour news services using their own TV drone or contracted commercial spy satellite. Indeed, this military surveillance system itself is really a commercial system. As The Washington Post reported, "the interagency team that pulled [Predator] together mainly used existing commercial computer technologies."

My guess is that it is only a matter of time before ABC hires a Russian satellite reconnaissance system (like they did in the Gulf War) to bring us better live coverage of Bosnia over television and/or the Internet. Of course, the government command centers now will have to monitor all the global 24-hour news services—not just CNN. And they also will have several global 24hour cyberspace news services called up on their computers.

Think about the national security implications of these recent events:

  • In January 1997, a corporate telecommunications team led by AT&T was awarded a $5 billion contract to have commercial providers take over some voice and data U.S. defense telecommunications systems.
  • In January 1997, the U.S. Defense Science Board warned of a possible "electronic Pearl Harbor," where attacks on U.S. digital information systems amount to a manifesto for warfare in the information age.
  • By the year 2000, three international consortium companies are planning global cellular systems, based on hundreds of low earth-orbiting satellites, to deliver cellular service anywhere in the world. One consortium has 14 international partners, including China, Russia, and the United States.
  • In February 1997, 70 nations, representing 90% of the $600 billion telecommunications market, signed an International Telecommunications Pact to open national telecom markets to foreign investors. Thus, a foreign investor now can own 100% of a U.S. telecom company (such as AT&T), if that investor's native country has opened its telecom market in the same manner.

Most of these new global commercial satellite telecom consortiums will offer customers Internet access and digital voice, video, and data broadband services.

The electronic information battle, with citizen interactivity or on-demand content, has just begun. All the players—government leaders, military leaders, journalists, and media owners—had better realize that none of us are in control of the information like we were in the good old days of the early 1990s. People armed with global cellular phones and laptop computers are the new players—with global reach and vast digital information gathering power. This is the new media world in which we must operate, and military and government leaders are falling behind.

Admiral Baker is Dean and Professor of Communications at Boston University’s College of Communication. A career Navy public affairs officer, he retired in 1992 as the Navy’s Chief of Information.

 

 
 

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