Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘military

Speech, Official and Otherwise

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CEO Podium

For a minute, there was a little controversy brewing over the omission of a line in an official White House transcript.  In early June, the Obama White House was accused of omitting a statement from the official transcript about the Iran nuclear deal that was made by Press Secretary Josh Earnest.  But this is not the first time the official version of something has conflicted with the recorded version that was caught by the news media.  It also happened in 2005, when Congressional Quarterly and the Federal News Service said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said something that McClellan said he didn’t.  In that case too, the recordings didn’t match the White House transcript.  And of course, the White House isn’t wrong, because its transcript is “official”.

These incidents ask a very interesting question; whom and what should be believed?

When an “official” presents an “official” statement, the idea is this is the “official” stance of his or her bosses all the way to the top.  It shouldn’t change since everyone downstream is expected to be in philosophical agreement.  And when that official statement comes from the White House, you’d think it’s golden since there aren’t a lot of people between the President’s press secretary and the President.

So when there is a difference of interpretation between who is saying so, it can throw the whole credibility thing into question.  In fact, just because someone is in an “official” position doesn’t necessarily mean they are telling the truth.  Upon leaving, many high ranking and respected authorities voice very different positions to those they held while they were still employed by those officials.

The most glaring example I can think of was the retirement of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  He served two presidents of two parties, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.  And when he started talking, from between the pages of his book, about failures of leadership in the execution of the Iraq war, higher ups in the current and former administrations backed away and not, I suspect, because he wasn’t credible.  To his credit, retired Marine Corps Commandant General James Amos, retired Army First Infantry Brigade Commanding General John Batiste and more than 20 other retired officers also openly criticized the policies of the decade long conflict.

But the point isn’t the formers officers speaking out, or that the policy was worthy of being spoken out against or even that the generals were retired and outside the reach of their former bosses.  The point was that those were the people who best knew policy and politics, tactics, strategy, manpower and budget.  And yet, they lost their war because they identified the wrong enemy.  They weren’t disputing that military power must be subordinate to civil power.  But they were disputing civil power’s credibility to define reality.

Officials may haul out reams of numbers and reports to explain to a questioning public that something which seems simple, isn’t or something that was said, wasn’t.  It is, in part, the paternalism that pervades organizations with historically complex missions.  “We are the expert.  Look over here, not over there.  Sit back, be quiet and listen to Daddy.”  But one of the key functions of the best people deep within in those organizations is to take the complex and make it simple for those on the inside, because they like straight lines too.

The people who know an organization best may be the people inside it.  But it may also be the people who are willing to speak truth about it.  And those two aren’t always the same.

Pronounciation Guides

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Pronounciation Guide

When I was a reporter for the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), pronounciation guides were a necessity. AFRTS facilities were scattered around the world.  Local military broadcasters presented the news to military and their families serving at those bases and posts.  And the last thing commanders wanted was for one of their people to embarass the command by mispronouncing the name of a host nation dignatary.

A pronounciation guide is a list of hard to pronounce words that occur in the major stories of the day.  It’s purpose is to help news readers say the word as correctly as possible.  Sometimes, that means as a company or country or group decides they want it said.  Remember the problem the media was having with ISIS versus ISIL versus DASH?

Sometimes, pronouncing a word correctly means as a community had decided it will be said no matter what “proper” pronounciation says it should be.  For instance, In Cincinnati, there is a main thoroughfare called Reading Road.  Most people might pronounce it as “Read” with “ing” at the end.  But Cincinnatians say it like “Red-ing”.  A pronounciation guide would be very helpful there.  A new hire at a hometown station that says “REED-ING” instead of “RED-ING” is instantly pegged as not a local.

By contrast, sometimes a name is just a nightmare to pronounce.  But anchors and hosts have to speak with authority and if they continually stumble over words, they start to lose their credibility.   Besides, it’s distracting for the listener because they start paying less attention to the story and more attention to the next time the anchor stumbles.  And that stumbling can take a few forms.  As a reader, you see the word coming in the copy with the horrible realization that you have no idea how to say it.  So you crash into it, trying not to break your pace as you butcher way through it and hoping no one will notice.   Or, you start to pronounce it, realize you are pronouncing it wrong and try again, and again, and again.  Somewhere in there, a part of your brain realizes another part of your brain just isn’t getting it.  So you slam another word in place and jerk yourself to another part of the sentence.

U.N. Secretaries General are especially hard.  There was Dag Hammarskjöld.  There was U Thant.  There was Boutros Boutros Ghali.  Without a pronounciation guide, how many anchors fell into those phonetic pits.

Sometimes you think a pronounciation guide is necessary when it really isn’t.  For example, in the U.S., the word “aluminum” (AHH-LOO-MIN-NUM) is pronounced much differently than how the British pronounce it, which is AYL-YOU-MIN-E-UM.  This is sort of similar to the Cincinnati example except it’s really the difference between homophones (words sounding the same but with different meanings) versus homographs (words spelled the same but sounding differently).

I miss pronounciation guides, and it seems some broadcast outlets are missing them too.  For instance, I recently heard a local commentator call the Oregon community of YOU-MA-TILLA, UH-MA-TILLA.  But this isn’t just something small outlets do.  Earlier this week, a reporter on CBS called the Oregon based sportsware manufacturer N-EYE-K, rather than N-EYE-KEE.

But pronounciation guides can be a pain too.  When you’re writing and producing stories, you’re constantly up against the clock.  When airtime is looming, scanning through a pronounciation guide is a luxury and the last thing you have time for.  So many of us in the business assume we know how to say something.


Simple Questions

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I worked for Armed Forces Television, and one of my jobs as a member of the News Department was to host an interview program. I worked on a small post and everybody watched American TV because it was familiar and reminded military and their family of home. And because it was in English. So we kind of had a captive audience.

Whenever anything happened on post, we were almost always behind the curve because the grapevine had already spread it all over before station politics had the testicles to speak of it too. As an aside, although it called itself a “News” department, it wasn’t really news. It was more like storytelling, which BTW, isn’t always immediate or proactive.  But, considering that the military can be an insular culture, even to itself and trusting of no one, it’s no small leap of faith to give a pocket of soldiers TV cameras and microphones and satellite dishes, even if they aren’t doing investigative journalism. You can still have scandal, and they can be caused by the smallest things.

Anyway, regarding this one particular incident, a military police officer had discharged a weapon in the military police arms room. For those who don’t know, an arms room is where soldiers go to be issued weapons and ammunition for duty requiring them to be armed, and turn in weapons and ammunition when the duty is completed.

So, the rumor was that a weapon had been fired. And since I was hosting a weekly, call in interview program with the Post Commander, I asked if this was true. It was a simple question. But there was a lot of weather behind it.

For one, the station commander and the administrative staff didn’t particularly like this commander’s style. He was belittling and a bit bullyish. Plus, some of them really wanted to broadcast news, not pabalum from the public affairs office. Also, I had developed some credibility as a reporter, so they must’ve thought I’d be good as a conduit between the community and the commander. Finally, the station knew me and this commander didn’t get along. So, I also believe they used me as a stick to poke him. I knew that was true because others who heard of the incident asked me to ask him on the program. I asked my supervisor first if it was OK to bring it up and she said yes. Other people said putting the commander on the spot would be disrespectful. But, I was a journalist and I was conferring with a supervisory journalist at a network broadcast station. Regardless of it being a military facility, it was one of those times when you follow the other professional track, and I was OK with that. Years later, I discovered a letter from him, written to my commander, saying how he thought I was terrible at my job and how he wanted me replaced. Funny thing is, I interviewed him for several more months after that until the program was mysteriously ended.  

So, anyway, I asked the question, “Sir, what happened in the arms room?” And as I remember, what followed was a long drawn out nothing of an answer, followed by a short but obvious castigation of me, on live TV.

I never did find out why the weapon was discharged. Was it accidental? Was it intentional. Were there injuries? What changes would be made to arms room protocols? But besides learning the brutal power of simple questions, I also learned that even when you’re inside an organization, you can’t always find out the truth.

You may know people are using you. Or you may have no love for the person you’re talking to. But the question still needs to be asked. And the simpler, with the least number of syllables and the flattest inflection and the most direct eye contact, the better.

It is one of my proudest moments.

Written by Interviewer

June 1, 2013 at 03:40

The Profession of Arms

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That’s what military service is called. It’s a term of art for those who dedicate their lives to the protection, preservation and defense of our country and its people. My love for those troops, who are, right now, in Artillery Batteries in Incrilik, Turkey, or Infantry Battalions on Korea’s DMZ, Armor at Fort Bliss, or on a submarine under the Arctic, and even in space (Astronauts are US Air Force) is unwavering.

Let’s make a distinction between the troops and their leadership. Their leadership is swayed by money (defense contractors flood the Pentagon to lobby the military to push Congress to continue funding for programs the military doesn’t even want), by influence (the revolving door between military service and work in the private industry is more obvious than a red light in a backstreet Parisian whorehouse), or entitlement (if the officer in charge of the military’s anti sexual harassment arm can be arrested for sexual harassment, then we have a problem).

Other failings of leadership? There are plenty. Arlington National Cemetery management of remains so poor that they aren’t even sure who is buried where, or who is in the caskets they inter. Walter Reed Army Medical Center coincidentally closed after revelations of despicable treatment of wounded soldiers. And the VA, unable to come to an agreement with the Pentagon over a computer system to help distribute help and manage the medical records of returned soldiers, while those soldiers wait years for that help.

Clearly, these armchair warriors, as Bruce Hornsby accurately termed them in “The End of Innocence” do often fail. By contrast, the soldiers who follow those orders rarely do. It is no wonder that in talking about the horror of battle and the service to our nation, Abraham Lincoln didn’t mention the bureaucracy when talking about those who gave their last full measure in the service to an earlier United States.

There was a recent discussion on Linkedin about whether corruption is an inherent part of human nature that we must all live with as part of the cost of doing business, or whether it could be eradicated for a much more pristine outcome. I am not so naïve’ as to think that we will always be able to overcome our base natures. But if we willingly buy into some of it, shouldn’t we, for the sake of morality, try to be all in?

Namely, if a civilian leader understands that military power yields to civil power, shouldn’t civil power wielders understand the responsibility they have to carefully hold and fiercely steward the lives of those men and women who fight our wars? And if a military leader understands the oath of service, shouldn’t they be willing to do whatever it takes to protect their troops with every ounce of everything they have, whether at the front of a convoy in a humvee or behind a desk?  Should civil leaders and military leaders be complicit in padding the pockets of the military industrial complex while using our sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers as gear grease in that machine?  Should we support regimes who we befriend solely because they are the enemies of our enemies?  Should we participate in conflicts with no clear strategy for winning, no clear path for leaving and no good rationale for joining?  Poor leadership says, in order, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.

I have served as both a civil servant and a soldier. And I can tell you, without hesitation, if you respect and love your boss, you will figuratively and literally go through hell for them. You will be cause you know they will protect you and kick your ass when you need it. As corny as it sounds, you know it’s because they trust you, they get out of your way and let you do the job they hired you for, trained you for. They love you and you love them.

And if you don’t love and respect your boss? It’s because you see your boss is more concerned with themselves. You see that your boss takes your effort and gives you no credit. You see your boss working to undermine you. You see them not as they portray themselves, but as they are; weak, cowardly and full of betrayal. This person you do not love, or respect. These people rely on patronage, and tenure. On manipulation of the rules. They are surrounded by the fat of their position, whether literal or figurative. They may seem enlightened and proactive and think of themselves as such, but they are pedestrian and reactionary.  They are seduced by themselves.  Poor leaders never think they are poor, which is part of the tragedy. They do not realize that they simply are not worthy of being followed.  For the good of the people they serve, they need to be extricated and forgotten in every way except as lessons to future leaders. They know who they are.

The troops, that’s another story. My best memory of troops is one morning, me and a small group from a detachment I was with out of the Pentagon, were on our way to morning mess at Fort Bliss. It was about 0400. And because Fort Bliss is a large, sprawling post, it has a very wide and very long company road. And on this morning, there were several Battalions of troops marching to breakfast. Each battalion was calling its own cadence, and they were trying to out call each other. I looked up and saw a black sky full of stars. I looked up the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. And I looked down the company road as far as I could see and saw troops singing. A chorus of thousands of voices singing different songs, but all singing the same music. And I cried because it was so beautiful.

That may sound militaristic to some. But what it was was a brotherhood and a sisterhood of people who do what nobody else does knowing they may, at any moment, be asked to die doing it. My love for the service was sealed in that moment. And though I may no longer be in the military, I will always be military. So, when I see the troops coming home, wounded, inadequately cared for, neglected and forgotten, I think, “I am healthy. I am strong. I can think cogently. I will do what I can to help right this. To not forget this.”

I can tell their stories. I can donate money. I can be a witness.

Amat victoria curam