From National Security Affairs
Jan. 11, 2013
The U.S. Naval War College National Security Affairs department hosted Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times, Friday, for the first practitioner lecture of the 2012-2013 winter trimester.
In a 90-minute question and answer session with faculty and senior students in the National Security Decision Making Course, moderated by professor Tom Fedyszyn, Baker lectured on the "role of the media” and the interaction of the Fourth Estate with the country's national security apparatus.
Baker discussed the impact of 24-hour news coverage and new social media technologies like Twitter in accelerating the spread of information and providing for instantaneous reaction – in some cases with the reaction occurring before an event is already over.
He noted the challenge for media outlets in balancing the need to be "first" in reporting a story versus getting it right in such an environment, ensuring that information is accurate, that it has been vetted, and that the desire to be "first" not undermine the overall credibility of the news organization.
Baker touched on the inherent tension between openness and security, the presses skepticism of government claims, and that the press seeks further confirmation or opposing views in its coverage.
He stated that while the media has a duty to prevent leakage of sensitive operational details, especially if it puts specific individuals at risk, it is not obligated to spare the government or its official’s embarrassment.
Asking about how to improve the relationship between the military and the press, Baker argued that further exposure is the best course, stating that the relationship is improved when military officers and reporters have more encounters to learn and understand each other's perspectives.
He noted that credibility of officers and officials is enhanced when they acknowledge setbacks and how things might be improved, pointing out that admitting when things go wrong gains someone more credibility than when things go right.
In light of recent developments where it appeared that military officers suffered as a result of their candidness being reported in the press, Baker expressed the hope that future senior leaders would avoid seeing things in a binary light, where “openness to the media” is equated with “risking one's career.”
In response to a number of student questions, Baker discussed how most media outlets engage in serious and substantive review of the information they receive, including weighing possible security risks and engaging with the government to discuss possible harm that might result from publication. He emphasized that the publication of stories involving national security issues is not done lightly or casually.
Baker also fielded questions about media bias, noting that papers like The New York Times work to separate the editorial page from news coverage. He said that while journalists strive to write stories in a way that the reader has no sense of their own personal opinions, he acknowledged that the perception of bias can occur if writers and editors are not careful. Baker pointed out that one way journalists often correct for this is to ensure that in any story information and commentary is solicited from a wide range of sources.
Baker concluded his lecture by offering the audience his impressions of the three presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – that he has covered, his experiences covering the U.S. military overseas, commentary on a variety of international issues, including developments in the Middle East and the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations, and the possible impact of fiscal constraints and domestic pressures on U.S. foreign policy.
Baker is the White House correspondent for The New York Times and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. Prior to the New York Times, Baker was the Moscow bureau chief for the Washington Post, served as an embedded reporter with the Marines during the 2003 Iraq campaign, and was the first American reporter to begin coverage in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.