Winant Sidle

The Media and the Military

VTR Date: October 13, 1984

Guest: Sidle, Winant


Hosts: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Major General Winant Sidle
Title: “The Media and the Military”
VTR: 10/13/84

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Remember that when Lyndon Johnson was overwhelmingly elected president of the United States in 1964, his popular majority over Barry Goldwater was truly staggering. Four years later, however, an unpopular Johnson chose not even to risk seeking his party’s nomination for reelection, announced his withdrawal in a dramatic television address, then spoke the next day before a convention of television and radio broadcasters about war and the media. What had happened, of course, was Vietnam. The president’s escalation of America’s undeclared war there, and in particular, night after night of media coverage, always questioning, often hostile, media coverage devoted to our so called “living room war,” with all of its horrors graphically brought home to use so overwhelmingly, so unavoidably. “No one can say,” the president noted, exactly what effect those vivid scenes have on American opinion.” Adding that historians must only guess at the effect that television would have had during earlier conflicts on the future of this nation. Well, the Pentagon did guess, when we later invaded Grenada, kept all media people, print and electronic alike, away from Grenada earlier on. And the protests from the media, from people with a very different tradition of a free and untrammeled press, led to the appointment of a distinguished panel on the military and the media, whose report was submitted to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not so long ago, by the panel’s chairman, our guest today, Retired Major General Winant Sidle.

SIDLE: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: You know, I guess the first question that I would ask you as a military man and as one very much concerned with public opinion, is whether you think the president, President Johnson, was onto something when he raised the question as to whether we would have been able to pursue prior wars before Vietnam if the media had been there in the same way and had covered our previous wars in the same way as Vietnam? What do you think?

SIDLE: Well, I don’t think it would’ve made as much difference as some people think. I’ve been in this business now for many years, and it seems to me that American public opinion is very hard to change, except maybe on a new subject. But on an old subject, such as the Vietnam War was at that time – I don’t know if you read this book by Peter Braestrop called The Big Story, but attached to … in the appendix of that book is a bunch of studies by pollsters. And, if you read those, you find that the war was still favored by most Americans – it wasn’t 50 percent, but it more against the war … — there were more against the war than were for it,. And I think that’s kind of interesting, because when you take the coverage of TET, for example, which, the point of this book is how bad it was, how inaccurate the press covered, the media covered Vietnam, and that was my … covered TET. And that was my feeling. I was in Vietnam; I was in Saigon at the time, and I thought the coverage was miserable. It was untrue. It was slanted. They kept the war going … the TET offensive going a lot longer than it actually went on.

HEFFNER: Well, what effect do you think that that “miserable, slanted” coverage had upon American attitudes?

SIDLE: Well, apparently it didn’t have an effect until after President Johnson abdicated, if you will. The polls kept showing that, maybe it was a bare majority, but there was a majority in favor of the war, even after that poor coverage. I think a lot of Americans … patriotic, dedicated; they think that the government wants to fight in Vietnam, okay, it’s got to be the right thing to do. It took a lot to change that.

HEFFNER: But, you know, there are those who say – and that doesn’t mean that it’s correct – there are those who say that the reason the Pentagon and the administration kept the press out of Grenada was a kind of throwback to attitudes generated by media coverage during Vietnam. Indeed, Drew Middleton, after Grenada wrote, “The armed forces emerged from the Vietnam War psychologically scarred. They were embittered by their failure to defeat the Vietnamese because of what they considered political manipulation in Washington, and, above all, by the media’s treatment.” What do you think about that?

SIDLE: Well, I can vouch for the fact that an awful lot of folks from all of the services who were in Vietnam thought the media treatment was very bad, and did blame a lot of the final results on the media’s treatment. However, you know, I don’t know how many of them have come back, as I have, and actually looked at the coverage, the television coverage, the printed media coverage, and it wasn’t as – except for TET, TET was terrible — but the other coverage, across the board, was fairly even. I mean, I think one of the problems is that we all tend to remember poor stories about what we are interested in, and forget the good ones. And I remember, I worked for – I won’t mention his name – but a very … a four-star American general, one time, and there was a reporter who wrote a bad story about the army – it was slanted, and it was basically untrue — He said, “This fellow always wrote like this. I’ll never talk to him again.” And I said, “General, that’s not true. Would you talk to him again if I brought up all the stories he’s written for the last year and showed you that most of them were favorable?” He says, “You can’t do that.” And I said, “Yes, I can.” He said, “Okay” I brought him up the 13 stories he’d written about the army that year; ten were favorable; three were bad. He capitulated, then he would talk to him again.

HEFFNER: That ratio was acceptable?

SIDLE: That was acceptable.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but let’s go back to this question that Middleton raises. Do you think that keeping the media out of Grenada was associated in any way with a very touchy attitude that had been generated, rightly or wrongly, by media coverage of Vietnam?

SIDLE: Well, I think, probably there’s some truth to that, especially subconsciously. Because most of the people who were majors and lieutenant colonels in Vietnam, when I was there, for example, are at least senior colonels and general officers and flag officers today. And my guess is that mood, that anti-media mood has continued, and that it’s possible that this had an impact. My personal feeling about why they weren’t included in Vietnam was that the public affairs aspect of it weren’t considered early enough to get a fair shake. And as our committee recommended, let’s get the planners and the decision makers thinking public affairs before they actually drop troops in somewhere or put them on the shore.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t quite understand. Wasn’t there a totally untrammeled, totally free coverage by the press, by the media, electronic and print, in Vietnam?

SIDLE: Oh, yes, indeed. But, see, Vietnam started very slowly and gradually. We had the … if you think back to the early ‘60’s, there weren’t very many media in Saigon. No one took it terribly seriously at that time. There were many stories written, but, you know, it wasn’t a big deal at that time. The Vietnam War just grew like topsy, and as it grew, more media came, and we sent over more public affairs people to take care of the media, and there was no … I didn’t start … I mean, it’s like apples and oranges as far as Grenada’s concerned. Grenada was a brand-new thing. It was like
D-Day and Normandy. And the thinking, my guess is that the planners just didn’t think about public affairs, and they didn’t consider it that important to start with. Then all of a sudden, as the time comes along, say “Oh oh, what are we going to do about the media?” There’s where your anti-media bias might have come in. I have no evidence that it did, but it might have come in.

HEFFNER: When the, when … whatever the bias was or was not when the act took place and the media, they were not there, they were not admitted. And then there was a reaction on the part of the media themselves. Clearly, the polls indicated the American people weren’t very excited about keeping the media out of Grenada. But what did that show you? What does that show you about our general attitude toward the press?

SIDLE: I think that the American people – although I have nothing to substantiate this but my own opinion – but I think that there has been so much negativism in the news during and after Vietnam … You know, if you look at the paper almost any day, any paper almost, they’re knocking education, they’re knocking doctors, they’re knocking industry, they’re knocking the military. It’s hard to find as many good stories as you used to find years ago. That’s my opinion. And I think that’s kind of reflected by the American reaction.

HEFFNER: Well, General, then I need to ask you then why you chaired this media military panel. Your first statement, a statement of principle, “The American people must be informed about United States military operations, and this information can best be provided through both the news media and the government therefore, the panel believes it is essential that the U. S. news media cover U.S. military operations to the maximum degree possible, consistent with mission security and the safety of U. S. forces.” Why the excitement about that if you feel the media are not that well regarded and had put their emphasis upon negative, negative, negative things?

SIDLE: Well, I think the American way requires that the media cover, just as we said in that statement. And our panel was unanimous; all 14 of us agreed with that. That even though they may not do a good job to the satisfaction of the people running the show, they’re still doing a necessary job that has to be done, and it’s up to us, the American military, to try to change it around somehow. And our recommendations, you’ll notice, deal with that also. We … I’d like to also say that I think this negativism is certainly far from universal in the media. There are an awful lot of professional, good reporters around covering the military. But I think the people in the Pentagon, for instance, today, think about this negativism as being too prevalent, more prevalent than it really is, let’s put it that way.

HEFFNER: Well I want to point out through that the question of negativism, one may say there’s a critical or negative approach but that it’s not bad; that it’s what necessary. Because who is going to judge the judgers here in this military situation? Who is going to look over the shoulder of the military? The military itself?

SIDLE: No, no I agree with that. I think the media has that role. And I think, as we say in the report, I think it should be done more politely or more … it shouldn’t be bitter. It should be kind of friendly. But both sides should admit that the other side, I mean, that each has its own points. Let me change that a little bit. I think some people in the industry, some people I the military, some people in medicine, And any area you want to pick, don’t like to see a bad story. My feeling is, if the story’s true, it ought to be written. Because if you make a goof, and if you’re a public servant, you should be held accountable for it. You know, one of the, I think the best definition of public relations is “do a good job and get credit for it.” Now, that requires you to do a good job first, and that isn’t the public relations guy’s job, that’s the boss’s job.

HEFFNER: But, you know…

SIDLE: Now, if he fails to do a good job, then he shouldn’t get credit for it.

HEFFNER: But, you know, that brings us to another aspect of this whole question: it’s not just a matter of did the military do a good job, did they land well, were there enough troops, were there too few, too many? Five hundred feet; is that the right altitude from which to parachute, or should it have been back to 550 feet? Questions like that. I don’t think that’s what we’re so much talking about. We’re talking about whether the military should have been there. Aren’t they talking about … No, no, the media’s question as to whether the action in Grenada, for instance, should have taken place. Wasn’t that the administration’s and the Pentagon’s concern, not that someone would have looked over the shoulder of the tactics involved, but at the movement itself, whether it was necessary? Aren’t we talking about something larger here?

SIDLE: Well, the media is certainly free to criticize the administration about the subject you’re talking about, whether there is: What will the media do when they are there on the ground? So that the problem is: What will the media do when they are there on the ground? I mean, following up on our question there. In other words, I think what you’re asking me is were they afraid that they would criticize the tactics, the 500 feet, “Did you land on the right beaches?” I mean that would … this is the kind of thing that I personally believe as a former troop commander, the media should lay off, at least at the start of an operation, because they don’t know anything about it. I mean, what do they know about what altitude a paratrooper should be dropped? I man really, what do they know about it? What do they know about which beach to pick? I mean, they can think they’re experts, but they really aren’t the experts in charge of doing the job. Now I’m not saying this to say that we should’ve kept the media out, but that is the problem, not the one that you raise. Because they cam argue that whether it’s an invasion pr a rescue attempt, whether they are there or not.

HEFFNER: Yea,, but General, is that really true? I mean, there were so many of the media people who were saying one couldn’t say that this was a rescue attempt to help the young American students out of there unless you had that watchdog there to see that indeed they were in trouble and indeed that they felt that way.

SIDLE: Yeah. Now, here’s where I agree with you, because I think it would’ve been helpful to have them there. I believe it would’ve been logistically impossible to bring them in at the very beginning, but it would have been very beneficial to the military had they been there to see the arms caches, to count the number of Cubans, to see the joy on the pat of he students at being rescued, they would’ve killed those stories about the students didn’t really need to be rescued, because they’d have been there and seen it. And I think that would’ve been helpful. So I believe, that’s one of the reasons that I believe that they should let the media in a lot earlier than they did.

HEFFNER: But you say logistically it would’ve been so difficult. Would it have been impossible to have gotten the kind of pool, maybe a smaller pool than we’re talking about now, a pool of reporters or newspaper people, media people of some kind, to go in at the very beginning?

SIDLE: I really don’t think it would have been impossible. I think hey could have put in a two-man pool, maybe. But I’m not really qualified to judge this. I don’t know how tight they were on seats on helicopters and on the amtraks for the Marines, they might’ve been too tight. But, you know, they still could have come in, let’s say, the first day. Maybe not H-hour but sometime thereafter.

HEFFNER: Of course, we hadn’t been too tight in the history of American military operations in the past had we? Somehow or other we had always managed to get…

SIDLE: To get somebody.


SIDLE: I think it’s interesting when you… Now, I’ve been told that of the
70-odd reporters that were on board the fleet on D-day, there were actually only three got on shore. And they didn’t … none of them made it at H-hour. But they did make it the first day. Now, three is not a very big number, but at least it’s somebody. So, you know I think we have to look at the historical facts before we jump to any conclusions. Io remember General Sherman, he wouldn’t let the press go with him on a number of occasions. And General, I think it was General Howlett, one of those gentlemen in the Civil War, court martial led media representatives.

HEFFNER: But, now, you and I would agree that doesn’t represent, those actions don’t represent the best of the American military media traditions.

SIDLE: Right. We do agree. Right.

HEFFNER: Okay then, look, we’re sitting here today talking about this. You have the tremendous advantage of a lifelong career in the military. You retired as a major general. You were in charge of this kind of action in Vietnam. Indeed the day that … the night that the president Johnson, announced his withdrawal from the presidential race and announced a military move, you were announcing it in Vietnam at the same time. Okay. We don’t have dummies in the Pentagon.


HEFFNER: We don’t have people who are not aware of the history of military media involvement.

SIDLE: Correct.

HEFFNER: So we still have to deal with the question of why did they do this in Grenada? And I have to, of course, put the question to you.

SIDLE: Yeah. Well, as I said, my feeling is that it was basically two things… Well, there were three factors involved, as far as I can see. One was that, I’m afraid it got. public affairs got a low-key treatment at the start of the planning. And I can understand this, because when you have either 48 — some people say 48; some say 72– hours to plan a complicated operation like this that brought troops from all around, and you had the Nasher helicopters, and you get them over there and so forth, the operators who were doing the planning might not have thought about public affairs, especially since they weren’t required to think about it. Now, our committee recommendations they make required to think about it. I think that would make a big difference Because if you had two days to think about, “How am I going to handle the press?” you make a much better decision than if you only have five hours. And that’s the figure I’ve heard, that, where it finally came up. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I can see the logic of it. And then you take that position, and, five hours, and you’ve got this feeling that you were talking about earlier of, “Well, I don’t really like the media,” and you can’t figure out any way to do anything about it that’s a very logical decision. I’m afraid if I were sitting in the spot I might have made the same thing, same decision. You say, Well, keep them out for now. They’re too much trouble; too hardboiled.” No, I don’t know if that’s right or not, but that’s my theory. And there was another factor involved. You may remember that the key man in this deal was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. The gentleman who had had that job had just retired. The man who was coming into the job had not been approved by the Senate. He was sitting in the job as a consultant. That puts him in a terrible position. I mean, he has no authority whatsoever. That increases the two hard pile aspects, from my point of view. Now, if you asked me why it took two days, I’m not able to answer that. I don’t know the answer to that. If I had been involved it certainly wouldn’t have taken that long.

HEFFNER: That was the question that I was going to ask you. And, of course, it probably is attitudinal. Well, it may be.

SIDLE: May be, yeah.

HEFFNER: Okay. You’re the expert; and you say you don’t know what happened.

SIDLE: Uh hum. That’s correct.

HEFFNER: And I’m certainly not; and I’ll just say, “Maybe it’s a possibility.” But, you know I’d like to go back to this question of what the livingroom war was all about. You make the point that public opinion surveys would sort of undercut this nation that the media really undercut our conduct of the Vietnam War. But surely things were building to a point.

SIDLE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … at which the president withdrew and made his announcement. Do you think it’s possible to fight a war today – I’m not talking about a nuclear war in which …

SIDLE: Yeah, that’s a different ballgame.

HEFFNER: …you know, forget it all – is it possible to have the press involved, with the television cameras there, and still have a people able and ready and willing to fight. People watching those scenes day after night, day after day, night after night. What do you think?

SIDLE: Well, I think it depends on a few things, l but let me make a few points. I think, for one thing, the military has to have some control over the media purely for the two points we made in our opening statement of the committee. Namely, operational security and troop safety. You’ve got to watch that. I mean, we cannot, we in the military cannot afford to let the media undercut either of those. So that gives us the right to – which I think precedes any media right – to put some controls on the media. Now, what our committee came up with was the use of ground rules. Ground rules are a tricky business. They require media cooperation. They require logical application by the military. But my feeling is that this did work in Vietnam. If you go back and look at the television coverage, for example, now how much of it is really bloody? I mean, you didn’t see a lot of people getting killed. You really didn’t.

HEFFNER: You sure thought you did.

SIDLE: Well, you got that impression, but you actually didn’t. Now, there were some exceptions. The TET coverage I was talking about. That was, that was an abomination, as far as I was concerned, but I won’t go into that.

HEFFNER: General, as you saw the body bags, you sure thought that you were seeing something terribly violent, and something that was appalling.

SIDLE: Well, let’s let me ask you a question. Let’s take World War II. No question the American people were a hundred percent behind it. I don’t think it would’ve affected it.

HEFFNER: You think then that the difference is between a popular war and an unpopular war?

SIDLE: I think that is a definite reason why it would work in a future war whether the press were covering or now.

HEFFNER: Well, the likelihood is if we had Grenada as an example, or the loss of our Marines in Lebanon, that we’re dealing with a country that is rather much divided. Not that it doesn’t stand behind its president; not that it doesn’t stand behind its armed forces; but divided in terms of where our president should take us and where those armed forces should be. Isn’t that what makes this now so much stickier, which made it stickier in Vietnam, and much more likely to be sticky in the future?

SIDLE: I think that’s definitely, it’s definitely sticker. And I still believe, though, that the media have to be permitted to cover. And I think as long as they cover fairly, following whatever … whether we have censorship or ground rules, whichever system they adopt, that it won’t be as bad as you think. Let’s put that way. However, I can certainly see the point, if the war is really unpopular, it wouldn’t take much to turn them around. That’s certainly going to be true.

HEFFNER: General, what about the new technology? This question has come up. Different from Vietnam, different perhaps today, as we talk from Grenada, not that long ago …

SIDLE: Uh hum. Uh hum.

HEFFNER: … the capacity to take television pictures, live television pictures, beam them up to a satellite and into your homes at the very same moment that the thing is going on. Now, if this had happened in Vietnam what would your posture have been?

SIDLE: Well, I think I would have adopted the posture that our panel adopted on this. This particular concern worried our panel a great deal, and we recommended that the Department of Defense get together, without delay, with the broadcast media to work something out.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but now wait a minute. “Work something out.”

SIDLE: Yeah, but not…

HEFFNER: I’m asking you what would you work out?

SIDLE: What I would’ve done… I’m pretty sure – of course, I hadn’t thought of this before – but what we would’ve had to do in Vietnam, to safeguard those two prerogatives I was talking about, i.e., military security and troop safety, we might well have had to institute some sort of on-the-spot censorship, or else require that the broadcast be delayed so we could see them – technology, even in those days, would have permitted us to review them – technology, even in those days, would have permitted us to review them – maybe not in the name of censorship in the name of accuracy or something or other, so that the two items that I was talking about will not be violated. Because we could not afford for anything to go back on TV, especially since the enemy can pick it up off a satellite just like anybody else, that would give away military secrets or impair security in any way, and that would cost American lives. We can’t afford that, and I would’ve certainly gone to General Abrams and General Westmoreland and any higher that I had to go to get something done about that. The only thing I can really see is some form of censorship.

HEFFNER: General, in your heart of hearts, do you think we really have to make so much of a fuss about getting the media there to cover our military activities?

SIDLE: Maybe I don’t understand your question.

HEFFNER: Well, what we dealt with, what your panel dealt with was the great hullabaloo that came after Grenada, at the time of Grenada, because the press wasn’t there. And so I ask the question, in the minute we have remaining: in your heart of hearts, as a military man all of your life, and a man concerned with public information, aren’t we making too much of a fuss about getting the media there at the time that our troops land?

SIDLE: I think it’s very important to get the media there as soon as you can for the very reason that, if you’re doing the good job I was talking about, you’re going to get better credit for it by having a third party sitting there saying you’re doing a good job.

HEFFNER: But good jobs aren’t always done, or aren’t always perceived as such, are they?

SIDLE: That’s the problem of “perceived as such.” The good jobs aren’t always done, of course, but the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have been doing a really good job for over 200 years, in the overall picture. I’m willing to take a chance on that.

HEFFNER: Would you take on the Army, Navy, Marines providing their own coverage and giving to the media news handouts, those DOD handouts?

SIDLE: I think that is subject to too much criticism. I mean, it wouldn’t be as valid, wouldn’t be considered by the American people as valid as if the guys with no interest, the media, were in fact repeating the story.

HEFFNER: And yet at the time of Grenada the American people didn’t worry about it, weren’t concerned.

SIDLE: No, they didn’t. They didn’t. And, in fact, one of the options that our committee did consider but didn’t do anything about was send in with the opening wave, again, if logistics permit, but send in a crew of trained military newsmen, cameramen, and so forth, and do just what you said. But I think that would be a problem in the event of a problem, because then you’d have the Department of Defense saying, “Well, we didn’t … look what we took pictures of. We didn’t cause any problem.” Whereas, if you had CBS, CNN, ABC or NBC showing the film, saying that this took place or didn’t take place, whichever, it’s more credible.

HEFFNER: General, we’re got a problem. We also are at the end of our program,

SIDLE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today.

SIDLE: My pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again next time on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.