News media priorities not quite right

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:56 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

One development I have noticed in my perhaps not-so-gracious, advancing years is the growing plethora of news reporting that appears to lack a corresponding increase in relevant information or any apparent endeavor to seek out meaningful alternatives. Television’s three major news channels, the several cable networks, the print media and the Internet seem to be engaged in the reporting and rehashing of that which is sensational or trendy but woefully lacking in substantive value.

In recent examples, we have been subjected to a diet of all Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan or Al Gore III all the time. Much of this is relatively harmless blather, the only real danger being that such obsession with trivial matters may camouflage or actually discourage any interest in truly significant activities affecting us.

Unfortunately, some of this preoccupation with the activities of celebrities or their often bewildering offspring is too often an unhealthy invasion of privacy, resulting in additional anguish and embarrassment to individuals or families already overburdened with more than their share. A case in point is the example of young Al Gore whose sole claim to fame is being the son of our former vice president.

Every day, thousands of people, young and old — famous and not famous — are stopped for misdemeanor offenses and duly reported on page one, page 12 or in arrest report statistics, depending on the circumstances. Why should the social standing of the individual, regardless of political affiliation, make this a cause célèbre to be dwelt upon for days in the various media at the expense of individual privacy or grief?

The most egregious example, however, of irresponsible journalism and political chicanery is the discussion of wartime casualties, particularly by those who have neither credibility nor experience in that arena. This is very evident in the issue of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the Army Ranger and former football player who unfortunately was a casualty of friendly fire.

Every combat death is a tragedy and is rendered even more anguishing by the fact that it was caused by friendly or unintended fire. Regardless of how terrible it must seem, in the combat environment involving human beings acting under uncommon stress in situational reactions, this is an inevitable consequence of war. To those who have experienced such an incident, the troop reaction is obvious — no one on the scene wants to believe it nor report it as such — it is an accident too horrible to comprehend.

Additionally, in the heat of battle, individual recollections are often clouded by uncertainty — it is not abnormal for the investigation to determine the facts to take several days. Accordingly, the ongoing and unhealthy obsession by the media and those with a political ax to grind to affix blame at the highest level possible for a “cover-up” of what, unfortunately and sadly, is not unique to war is abominably disgraceful.

As one who has experienced this “up close and personal,” I guarantee that no one in the chain of command wants to report a combat death as a friendly fire incident for no other reason than to spare the next of kin additional suffering. It is both tragic and a travesty that field commanders are being punished and reviled for acts of mercy. Those who use it for headlines or political gain are shameful creatures indeed.

I have long advocated that all deaths sustained in a combat zone be attributed to enemy action. The knowledge that the cause of death was accidental will add unnecessary pain and suffering to the family. Compassion may often trump truth.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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