Information Warfare: Victory is Bad for Business

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November24, 2006: In the battle between the military and the media, the troops are losing. The reason is simple economics. Military defeats are, for the media, more profitable than military victories. Good news doesn't sell. This causes problems when you are fighting a war.

Back in the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Defense came up with the concept of Information War. This new combat arena included both the traditional battle over communications networks (which were growing increasingly complex and important), information itself, and the impact of the mass media on military operations. This last aspect was a result of how the mass media turned on U.S. operations in Vietnam after 1968. Ironically, the trigger for that turnaround was the Tet Campaign. This desperate attempt by the communists to trigger a mass uprising in South Vietnam, was a major defeat for the communists, and destroyed the local guerilla movement, the Viet Cong. But the media spun it as an American defeat, and the Department of Defense was still trying to figure out how they could avoid repeats of the Tet experience. But while the military was pondering solutions, the media news business went through a transformation that rendered the Tet experience irrelevant. In the last twenty years, TV news has become less a public service, and more a profit center. Ratings, and the resulting advertising revenue, became paramount. Public service went out the window, and competition for viewer eyeballs became everything.

The best example of this change could be seen in the reporting of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the month of fighting that led to the fall of Baghdad, 51 percent of the U.S. network news stories were negative. By late 2003, nearly 80 percent were negative. During the 2004 Presidential elections, 89 percent were negative, and by 2006, over 90 percent were negative. This despite a long string of additional victories. The media became increasingly reluctant to interview the troops, because they told a story that was quite different from what the TV news media was spinning.

Then something else happened. In the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web came along, and a decade later, over a billion people were connected to it. The majority of young people, and an increasing number of older ones, were now getting most of their news from the web. That's where the troops, and other non-journalists who have been to Iraq, or are still there, could tell their story. Compared to the network news, it's amateur night on the web. But the shift in where the eyeballs are looking is striking. The audience for the network news gets older every year. The younger generation of viewers are getting their news from the web. While much of that news is still created by the traditional mass media, a lot of it comes from blogs and independent news analysts. The traditional news outlets no longer matter as much as they used to, and matter less each passing day.

This leaves the Department of Defense wondering what their Information War strategy should be. The most recent move was to pump out more raw material to the general public, and thus the independent, web based, news outlets. These operations don't have to invent bad news in order to survive. The web, in the end, may solve the military's problem of getting an accurate report of their operations to the public.

 


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