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The Media as a Force for Public Accountability

Interviewee: Elizabeth Rubin, 2008-2009 Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow
September 8, 2009

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As part of the Edward R. Murrow 60th Anniversary initiative current and former fellows discuss the stories that have had the most impact and present ideas for sustaining serious international journalism. Former fellow Elizabeth Rubin considers why she was blacklisted by the media department of the 101st Airborne Division. Using her experience covering the military she also explores possibilities for the future of international reporting at this time of upheaval. For more on the initiative, visit cfr.org/murrow.

What is one international story or topic (of your own reporting) that you believe had the greatest impact and why? Explain why you chose to report it.

The story of mine that has had the most significant impact recently was "Battle Company Is Out There," which was published in February, 2008 in the New York Times Magazine. The military tends to guard its problems, keep them inside the family. But often it is not until the problems are exposed to the general public that the Generals are pushed to make changes.

I set out to find out why the US military was killing so many Afghan civilians, particularly in airstrikes, and I wanted to tell the story from the military perspective. We knew the tragedy from the civilian side, but I thought that if we could get behind the soldiers calling in the airstrikes and the airmen dropping the bombs, we could better understand the dynamics and maybe change them. It was an ambitious thought. I tried first with the Air Force, but the interviews were so controlled by the public affairs officer and by the restrictions put on the pilots that the effort was fruitless. What I did come away with is how much faith they all seemed to have in the accuracy of the systems on the A10, B1, and F17 bombers. Next I tried to embed with the JTACs, that is the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, the Air Force guys on the ground who coordinate between the army ground commander and the pilots. That too was nixed by the public affairs officers.

Finally I embedded with a company from the 173rd out in the Korengal Valley in Kunar. They were calling in more airstrikes than just about anyone in Afghanistan though I did not know that at the time. What I did discover was the complexity of their fight, and the moral dilemmas and life and death decisions they faced almost every day. I watched 2000 pound bombs go astray because of cloud interference, inaccurate coordinates, and the wrong target. I was with the Captain when he decided to call in airstrikes and helicopter gun-runs all night long to protect his soldiers who were air assaulting into a hostile village. He knew there would be serious civilian casualties, which there were. Many of the soldiers were on their 3rd and 4th tour of duty, suffering from repeated and prolonged stress and trauma. They were constantly restraining themselves not to go berserk on the villagers. Many were on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs-so much so that the medic's tent kept enormous tubs of such pills on hand. After my piece on the soldiers in the Korengal Valley appeared, Generals were suddenly flying out to the Korengal to see for themselves what was going on. Admiral Fallon and several others called the company's Captain to find out if the report was accurate. Internal reviews were conducted by medical professionals to determine the consequences of putting so many soldiers on prescription drugs. Conditions for the soldiers in the Korengal were improved-better housing, food, internet and phone access. And the military leadership began considering removing the bases from the Korengal Valley altogether. Although most of the soldiers and officers I wrote about were satisfied, even pleased with the piece, for a brief time I was blacklisted by the incoming 101st Airborne Division media department which took over command in Afghanistan. We have since heard that the 101st hired the Rendon Group, a controversial, public relations firm, to make assessments on journalists past reports, and to recommend whether they should or should not be given access.

Do you have any ideas--whether yours or someone else's-for how the news industry can sustain serious international reporting at a time of great upheaval in the media?

The media and the military have always had a complicated relationship. Often the military distrusts journalists' intentions. Yet journalists and the media can be a soldier's best advocate. Take the Washington Post on the appalling conditions for US war wounded at the Walter Reed military hospital. Or NPR's series on the consequences of post-traumatic stress syndrome in active duty soldiers and the military's reluctance to address the problem. In both cases, the conditions and treatment of soldiers were seriously improved because of these in-depth investigations and public reports. It is the public accountability that lends these reports their weight. If the investigations were internal there'd be much less pressure for the institution to change. Every developing country that is struggling for political freedom or trying to fight government abuses and corruption knows that the media is its most powerful tool. Foundations, corporations (even if it's against their interests), and philanthropic institutions like the MacArthur Foundation, Annenburg Foundation, the Rockefeller Fund, the Pulitzer Center, need to reserve funds that can be used by news organizations to keep international investigations and reporting alive. Without these exposes there is no question our democracy will begin to falter.

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