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Off base.

One sweltering day last June in Beaufort, South Carolina, area reporters were invited to a press conference. The nearby Marine Corps air station had just been placed on a list of bases that might be closed, and local government and business officials wanted everyone to know they were outraged.

Toward the end of the press conference, one radio reporter leaned forward and asked, "What can we do to help?"


Across the country, in communities spending millions of dollars to hire lobbyists and fight to retain military bases, "we" already were helping--picking up the increasingly frantic "save-the-base" drumbeat where the local Chamber of Commerce left off. "Anytime we wanted to get the word out, the media was there. We really couldn't have done it without them," says Lisa Brunsvold of the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce in Texas. "They played a big part."

But is that their job?

Some television news anchors led save-the-base rallies, others wore save-the-base buttons during newscasts. Several newspapers printed save-the-base logos with news stories. Radio stations organized petition drives, broadcast live news shows outside base entrances and staged publicity stunts to boost support for the local base. One San Francisco Bay area radio station sent a six-foot postcard to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, the independent seven-member group appointed by Congress to assess the Pentagon's base closure recommendations. Another station, in Charleston, South Carolina, sent two disc jockeys to Washington, D.C., with more than a ton of nuts and screws to tell Pentagon brass that they were "nuts" to close the city's Navy base and that the community was being "screwed."

A review of coverage and interviews with reporters, editors and community leaders found that from last March, when the Pentagon recommended that 31 major bases be closed, to late June, when the commission voted to shut down 35, such boosterism was evident in straight news reporting as well. Several newspaper reporters say their stories were given front page placement when they covered save-the-base rallies, but buried inside the paper if they indicated that a base might close. Other reporters say their suggestions for stories on the potential benefits of base closings were shot down. And some news managers were lobbied by their local Chambers of Commerce to jump on the save-the-base bandwagon. There were some balanced stories dealing with the realities of a downsized military, but the bulk of the news coverage during those three months was characterized by the same sentiment: How can this base be spared?

In the case of base closings, it seemed that almost everyone--including the media--became so preoccupied with parochial interests that they forgot that the government is closing bases because they are no longer needed. The enemy is gone; the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact no longer exist. Defense spending has dropped from $300 billion ($348 billion in constant 1994 dollars) at the height of the Reagan-era buildup to this year's projected $283 billion--a level still well above the $134 billion ($243 billion in 1994 dollars) that was spent on defense in Jimmy Carter's last year in office.

After the largest military buildup in U.S. history during peace time, the country is beginning to trade in its guns for butter. Billions of dollars could be diverted to help ease the federal deficit or pay for needed social programs. But a local military base means jobs, contracts, retail sales and utility customers, so base-dependent communities wanted other military facilities to close, not theirs.

The reaction to the Pentagon's hit list was swift. Oklahomans formed human chains around Tinker Air Force Base. Texans lined the streets from the airport to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, hanging banners with sayings like "You've Got the Wrong Base Baby, Uh Huh" from freeway overpasses. New Jersey teachers had their students write letters to the base closure commission pleading for McGuire Air Force Base's survival. In Corpus Christi, a Baptist minister prayed for the Ingleside naval station's deliverance. In Charleston, South Carolina, the Catholic bishop even complained to the Pope about the area's woes.

And the media joined in.

"There was a lot of rah-rah journalism. I saw it in our own coverage," says Bill Bauman, news director at KCRA-TV in Sacramento. "We asked ourselves, is the story we're covering: The Department of Defense budget is shrinking, it's the end of the Cold War, so we've got to cut bases and reduce spending? Or: McClellan Air Force Base is closing and we're losing 12,000 jobs? We decided, well, it's the latter. We're not comfortable about that, but that's what we're doing.

"It's hard not to get caught up in the emotional atmosphere," he adds. "I'm sure the Chamber of Commerce loves us."

Local Chamber of Commerce officials had plenty to be pleased about in other base towns, at least when it came to media coverage. Several newspapers printed save-the-base logos with their front page news stories. Others published front page editorials, reminders to go to rallies, or boxes with the phone number and address of the base closure commission.

David House, managing editor of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, defends his paper's use of the logo "In Defense of South Texas." "It wasn't what we were doing," he says. "It was what they [local residents] were doing."

Many papers ran ad-free special sections. In South Carolina, the Charleston Post & Courier distributed a 24-page "In Defense of Charleston" supplement, while in New Hampshire, the Portsmouth Herald published "A Call to Arms." Sections included sentimental stories on the local base's history, and emphasized the millions of dollars it pumps into the local economy each year, as well as the thousands of jobs that would be lost and lives disrupted unless the base were spared.

"We tried not to be guilty of boosterism, but obviously we were giving the Charleston slant," says Larry Tarleton, executive editor of the Post & Courier. "We are involved in the city of Charleston, deeply involved. The newspaper is one of the biggest corporate citizens."

Editorials clearly came out on the side of maintaining the status quo. "Sucker Punch" wrote one Ohio writer at a Columbus weekly. "Whew! The base is spared--this time," wrote Mike Jacobs in the Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota. "Fight to save aviation depot worth the money," editorialized the Pensacola News Journal in Florida. "A plot against McGuire," said the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.

Such base-boosting sentiment spilled over from editorial pages and corporate boardrooms, where some publishers were involved in the local Chamber's base-saving effort, and into news headlines. The Oakland Tribune's March 16 lead story on the Pentagon's base closure recommendations ran under the headline: "107 days to sway base panel." The Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, led with "Defense budget ax falls with a sickening thud." Other headlines could have easily been lifted from Chamber press releases: "When the nation called--McGuire delivered," maintained the Burlington County Times in New Jersey. "Donation to Griffiss [Air Force Base] campaign seen as investment in future," said the Daily Sentinel in Rome, New York.

In some areas, the tenor of the coverage was directly related to the distance from the base. In April, the General Accounting Office issued a report concluding the Pentagon's closure list of 31 bases was "generally sound" despite several errors. In an article on six bay area Navy bases on the list, the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned the GAO endorsement in its headline and in the third paragraph, and ended the page A3 story with a quote from an arms control expert that the GAO "appears to be saying the Navy recommendation makes military and economic sense." Much closer to one of the facilities, however, the Oakland Tribune's front page headline read, "Report criticizes closure list...Study will bolster arguments to save East Bay military facilities." The fact that the GAO found the list "generally sound" was not mentioned until the 19th graph on an inside page.

"I think it's pretty hard for local newspapers to stay objective. You don't want to start shaking pompoms around, but you've got to cover the local community and what they're doing," says Christopher Hines, military reporter for the Oakland Tribune. "And most of the stuff you're covering is the save-the-base effort. Tally it up, and that's 80 percent of your coverage."

News anchors at WCIV-TV in Charleston accepted Chamber of Commerce "In Defense of Charleston" buttons in an on-air interview with a "defense analyst"--actually a city official and key player in the effort to save Charleston's Navy base. The anchors wore the buttons during live coverage of base closure hearings in May.

"I have no problem with that," says WCIV News Director Deborah Tibbetts. "The effort to save the military presence is important to the entire community, and that includes all of us. We live here, we work here, our business is here. How can you not work to save the economy?"

Finally, when the commission voted to remove bases from the list, some papers joined in the community's elation. For example, when Robins Air Force Base in Georgia was pulled off death row, the Daily Sun in Warner Robins ran a story with the headline, "Great news for the best AFB in the nation!"

Some journalists found their news organizations' blatant boosterism hard to take. "It was appalling," says Steve Campbell, a reporter for the Portland Press Herald in Maine who covered base closure proceedings in 1991 and 1993. "Our role is to report the news, not to keep unnecessary military bases alive." A West Coast reporter, who asked not to be named, agreed: "An independent press is supposed to take an even-handed look at things. My paper...went beyond parochial concerns to cheerleading."

Others acknowledge they lost sight of the larger story. "You know what we need to do that we haven't been doing lately?" Brad Warthen, an editor at the State in Columbia, South Carolina asked reporters as he was planning the paper's final stories on base closings in June. "We need to remind people why we're doing this [closing bases]."

Stories that ran counter to the save-the-base mentality, however, rarely made it in print or on the air. One reporter suggested a story on a local environmental group that was pleased the nearby Air Force base might close because the low-flying jets had been disturbing wildlife. Editors weren't interested. Another reporter documented the reasons for closing the local base and sent the information to an independent defense analyst, urging him to write an op-ed piece. The reporter believed his paper would never run such a story. "It was understood early on what I was supposed to do," he says. "And what I was not supposed to do was create a negative atmosphere during the fight for the base."

When it became evident that certain bases could not be saved, several news organizations ran stories that blamed the loss on "politics"--even though bases were closed in 19 Democratic and 14 Republican districts. Some newspapers and television stations ran uncritical stories quoting local Chamber officials alleging a Pentagon conspiracy to "rig" the case against the local base.

Much as communities refused to consider the possibility that their base saving efforts would fail, few reporters wrote stories on defense conversion and what life might be like after the bases closed. The Sacramento Bee editorialized that conversion and economic diversification could help the California economy; the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story just days before the commission vote on the successful conversion of an Air Force base in Louisiana. But these were among the exceptions.

"You never saw the headline: |Pentagon saving $4 billion by getting rid of obsolete bases,'" says John Day, Washington correspondent for the Bangor Daily News in Maine. "We all covered it like a sports event, an |us' against |them' story."

Carol Lessure, an analyst with the Defense Budget Project, a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based group that analyzes defense spending, says she rarely saw stories written or broadcast on how the base closures were the first step in converting the military-industrial complex to civilian use. "Some reporters called up and asked me to comment on the tragedy of base closures," she says. "I said, |I'm so tired of tragedies, why don't you write about a success story?'"

Was she ever quoted? "Not that I've seen."

Reporters, editors and news directors who led the charge for local bases say it was nearly impossible to do otherwise. Their role, they say, is to cover the local community. In this case, their coverage necessarily reflected the prevailing save-the-base sentiment.

But there is another aspect of base closings that affects news organizations: A major loss to the local economy can mean a significant loss in ad revenue. "It's not a novelty that newspapers and broadcasters discover a grave civic issue when they're going to lose money," says media critic Ben Bagdikian. "A recession is on, and a base closing is similar to a major factory closing."

James Dynko, editor of the Plattsburgh Press-Republican in upstate New York, concedes that the future health of his newspaper is a major consideration. "When you're talking about a $150-million-a-year impact on the community, it's pretty hard to be objective," he says. "Especially when you can see some of your own people being laid off down the line."

Some pressure to skew coverage came from local Chambers of Commerce.

In May, Jim Smith, general manager of WCSC-TV in Charleston, South Carolina, was invited to a meeting with several members of the local Chamber of Commerce, who also happened to be the station's biggest advertisers. Chamber officials didn't think the station was doing what it could to help save the Charleston Navy base and thought the threat of lost advertising revenue might convince Smith to be more accommodating, says one Chamber source who asked not to be identified.

Smith refused to go to the meeting. "The Chamber felt like we ought to be championing their cause and we certainly were outside the newsroom, with public service announcements and allowing guests on certain shows," Smith says. "We made it very clear, |We will do whatever we can to help, but we won't do it in the news broadcast.'"

After Smith refused to meet with the advertisers, WCSC News Director Don Feldman says the Chamber "forgot" to tell station reporters about press conferences and put off interview requests.

"I have never had more pressure put on me on a news story," Feldman says. "When this base closes, we'll lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue if these companies go out of business. But as a news department, you've got to be objective. When you lose that, you lose the ball game."

The way the media covered the 1993 base closure story reflects the continuing debate about the role of the media in the local community. Should the media encourage local business and civic efforts? And if so, should they only do so by donating money or services as a corporation? Should they write supportive editorials? Should news stories reflect a booster mentality?

The Caller-Times' David House says that while some of his reporters were uncomfortable with the tone of the paper's 16-page, ad-free special section on Corpus Christi's Ingleside naval base, he and other editors felt justified. "To be fair and not to sound like some sort of inflexible puritan, I guess I can see a time when the media may want to buoy the public," he says. "Like in the Midwest where people are suffering because of floods. You might be doing something to make people feel better."

To Bagdikian, such feel-good journalism in the name of community service does more of a disservice. He believes that by cheerleading and showing only the community's point of view, the media forsakes its mission to report the facts, no matter how bitter they may be.

"It should not be the job of the news to jolly people along in an illusion," says Bagdikian. "That's lousy journalism, and does no real service to the community. Unless you stand up [against boosterism], the public will be ill-prepared for something that's probably going to happen anyway. And it's something they should understand."

The State's Brad Warthen says boosterism undercuts the media's role as a forum for the exchange of ideas. "Sometimes we've got to piss people off," he says. "Sometimes the right thing is the thing that makes everyone unhappy."

Gene Roberts, former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now a professor at the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, says the trend toward boosterism has become more prevalent in the last five years as news corporations pressure their newsrooms to meet profit goals. He says that many newsrooms have become so invested in the economic health of their communities that they have lost the detachment, objectivity and fairness that have long been the standards of news reporting.

"Some say boosterism is not sinister," says Roberts. "But advertorials, the auto pages and fighting to keep local bases--all of that keeps breaching the dike. And I think something that is very important about the relationship between newspapers and communities is lost. The truth suffers."
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Title Annotation:local media response to likely closure of military bases
Author:Schulte, Brigid
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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