Gregory Lubold’s story in Situation Report on the Department of Defense’s termination of its widely read and influential daily news summary, the Early Bird, is a case study in bad Pentagon decision making. On its face, the decision makes little sense. With 1.5 million daily subscribers, the Early Bird was outperforming every other defense-related news outlet and most general news sources. It provided defense officials and the broader national security community with what can reasonably be described as a comprehensive common operating picture of the international defense news environment. If this were a commercial operation, it would be considered a gold mine. The Pentagon could have made money by selling advertising space in the Early Bird, offsetting part of the cost of sequestration.
According to Lubold, four reasons were given for the decision. First, Pentagon Public Affairs discovered something called the Internet which supported more rapid, convenient and broad-based access to news. Second, the Early Bird risked copyright infringement because it failed to provide links to the original source for its stories. Never mind that dozens of foreign affairs and defense news compilers on the Internet do this routinely, including the aforementioned Situation Report. Third, and most significant, the Early Bird had become “too influential.” According to the individual behind the execution order, Colonel Steve Warren, “people would organize their day around what was in the Early Bird.” The fourth reason was that the publication was seen by some (of course unidentified) as serving the Pentagon’s public relations interests rather than providing honest and full spectrum reportage, or “situational awareness,” to use the military’s term.
The four-part explanation for the demise of the Early Bird frames perfectly the problems with the way the Pentagon operates. It failed to recognize and respond to new information technologies and communications systems. It wasn’t just a late adopter; it persisted for decades in the belief that it could ignore technology. Then it failed to learn from the innovations made by the private sector in the exploding world of electronic information. Every electronic information provider, many of who are connected to Washington-based think tanks and public policy institutions, has learned how to attach links to information sources, except for the Pentagon. But rather than modernizing its product and delivery, Pentagon Public Affairs decided “what the heck” and just cancelled the whole thing.
But when it comes to dysfunctional decision making, nothing beats the rationale that the Early Birdneeded to be cancelled because it was “too influential.” The Early Bird broke no stories; it merely reported what was already out in the public domain. The military talks endlessly about the need for improved situational awareness and the development of common operating pictures. Because the Early Bird provided situational awareness in a timely manner that enabled defense officials to respond agilely and flexibly to issues and problems, it needed to be cancelled. Does that make sense? People inside and outside government responded to its stories because they had to. Heaven forbid that anyone in the Pentagon should be required to spend their day responding to a story that reflects poorly on the Department of Defense, its decisions or any of its programs. Or is the idea that no one at the Pentagon listens to the major news outlets, reads newspapers or subscribes to defense and foreign policy periodicals and consequently they won’t have to address stories about problems in the department if theEarly Bird is cancelled? What if the reason the Early Bird appeared too influential is that program managers, senior civilians and military leaders figured that they could avoid dealing with problems until they appeared in major media stories and, hence, in the Early Bird? Only government bureaucrats could define the problem as too much information and believe that the solution is to shut down the source.
I have a better idea. How about closing the Pentagon Public Affairs operation? If one criticism of theEarly Bird was that at times it appeared to act as a public relations front for the department then solve that problem by firing the public relations people. We can start with the genius who came up with the idea of cancelling the Early Bird. But let’s get rid of the whole organization, all the way up to the Assistant Secretary. That way the department will not have to hear bad news and there won’t be anybody around to respond to stories put out by other sources. The Pentagon would save money and, like the three monkeys, see, hear and speak no evil.
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