The problem with the news is that it is always about what’s happening today. It’s almost never about underlying trends or larger meanings. So if you peruse the archives of major newspapers over the last few decades, you’ll find their front pages were full of stories that turned out not to matter over the long run — you know, stuff that was a big deal back then but nobody remembers today. Lots of scandals, but relatively little about breakthroughs in bioscience or the nation’s deteriorating trade balance. The Internet has made news even more perishable — unless you think Kim Kardashian’s marital status has major social implications.
Because of the way the news business operates, it’s quite possible for a person or institution to look bad in the public media every day and yet end up seeming like a smashing success to later generations. For instance, many newspapers treated Abe Lincoln like he was a dunce until the day he died. The U.S. Air Force seems to be suffering from a similar mismatch between its treatment in the news media and the larger reality of what it has accomplished. That larger reality is that it is the most powerful, capable aerospace force in the history of the world, essential to maintaining global peace and the security of America. Just one of its stealthy bombers — it’s the only air force in the world that operates stealthy aircraft — can precisely destroy dozens of hostile targets in a single flight. Its reconnaissance systems provide the joint force and national leaders with continuous awareness of overseas threats collected from across the electromagnetic spectrum. It operates the world’s only sizable fleet of airlifters and aerial-refueling tankers with sufficient reach to insert forces anywhere on earth with 24 hours notice.
But that isn’t the sort of thing that you hear about the Air Force when you listen to the news. What you hear about is an officer groping a woman in a parking lot. Or launch officers at missile sites being relieved of duty after their performance was rated poorly by inspectors. Personally, I’m real pleased that the Air Force has a rigorous system for testing the skills of airmen who might be called upon to launch nuclear missiles, but something tells me that’s not going to be the dominant theme in most of the news coverage. The simple truth is that the U.S. Air Force has done such a good job of deterring nuclear threats and controlling the skies for the last two generations that people now simply take the security it provides for granted. So they focus on ephemera instead, because that’s more interesting. Nobody outside the military wants to do the hard work of understanding what a ground-tracking radar plane does, but a sex scandal? Jeepers, tell me more.
Having said all that, though, I think Air Force leaders need to take some responsibility here. Not for what some goofball airman did when he was drunk the other evening, but for failing to do a better job of telling the rest of the air power story. Sure the news media are difficult and distracted, but haven’t you ever wondered why fighter programs facing cost overruns get so much bad press, while shipbuilding programs facing similar problems barely get noticed? Or why that idiot who groped a woman will get more coverage than the recurring rapes committed by members of other services at overseas locations such as Okinawa? It sounds to me like the most capable air force in the world might benefit from getting a little more capable at outreach, meaning — dare I say it — public relations. Image matters when you’re trying to sell a military posture or modernization plan, and right now what the public is getting is a steady diet of bad news about the Air Force. It needs to hear the other 99% of the air power story.
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