For most people, we have to take the media’s word for certain things – we only have so many hours in the day, and only have so many days in our lives to learn about things. I have never been part of a professional football team – I’m pretty much going to have to take ESPN and SI’s word for what it’s “really like” to be a Aaron Rodgers. I will probably never go to China, and even if I do, it’ll be to take pictures in front of the Great Wall and buy cheap plastic souveneirs – if I want to know about the geopolitics of the Middle Kingdom, I’m going to have to read a book or watch the news.
The one area where I DON’T have to take media’s word for things is Somali Piracy – it’s about the only area where I can unabashedly call myself an expert. I’ve deployed twice on US Navy ships to conduct Counter Piracy Operations. I’ve personally captured pirates and freed hostages from captivity, and talked merchant ships through an attack from AK-47’s and RPGs. So when the press decides to cover piracy, it’s an opportunity (for me, at least) to get a “glimpse behind the curtain” at what gets left said and unsaid.
Towards the end of last week, the USS KIDD (a destroyer) and the JOHN C. STENNIS (a carrier) stopped a pirate attack in progress and rescued the crew of an Iranian dhow that had been forced to act as a mothership for the small pirate skiffs. The event made worldwide headlines and was at the top of CNN and other news sites for a couple of days.
What’s interesting to me is that the event itself was not particularly notable. That’s not a disparagement of the fine work done by the KIDD, or to downplay the effect it had on the rescued crew – 13 fishermen are headed home to their families instead of facing death or imprisonment at the hands of pirates. The attack and military response are essentially business as usual in the CP world – distress call, warship responds and chases off the attackers, follows it back to a mothership, forces surrender and captures the pirates. It’s not an every day or even every week occurence, but it’s happened many times without getting anywhere near the press attention that this event has received.
For instance, at almost the same time as the KIDD’s event, a Danish ship under NATO command, the HDMS Absalon, captured 25 pirates and rescued 14 hostages. A different US ship, the USS CARNEY, rescued a Indian flagged dhow, freeing 20 Pakistani and Indian crewmembers. Both of those events have been covered, at best, by a press release or a blurb on a foreign website.
So what made this story different? It’s easy to pick on the “lamestream media” – either it’s a “pawn of the man” or it’s filled with a bunch of whiney liberals. I offer three reasons, none of which neccesarily have to do with bias or incompetence – just the human factors that dictate the news.
- Spin – There’s no doubt that the US Navy played up the resuce of Iranian crew as a way of not-so-subtlely sticking it to the Iranians that have been rattling the saber in the Strait of Hormuz. It’s notable that a Pentagon spokesman made the announcement regarding the event – typically that sort of event would be handled by the lower ranked and lower profile Fifth Fleet or CENTCOM press office. This time, though, we wanted to make some politicaly hay over the event, so it gets bumped up in priority and is briefed to the press at a much higher level than normal. Again, no conspiracy theories here – I’m quite certain that the event was not planned or staged by the US Navy, just that once it did happen, the Pentagon took full advantage of the propaganda value it provided.
- Proximity to an Admiral – the attacked happened literally within miles of an aircraft carrier, the JOHN C. STENNIS. With carriers come Admirals, and with Admirals come press. The New York Times has by far the best coverage of the event, because they had a reporter embedded with the carrier group that got to fly over to the KIDD and take pictures of the dhow and the suspected pirates. The story became big because the press happened to have someone close by to cover it and take pretty pictures of the event. The details of the story don’t make it news – the presence of a reporter does.
- Slow news day – the end of last week was a lull in the drone of political coverage. The press is probably getting tired of reporting the same-old-same-old in the Syria and Egypt. Iran’s exercises are already old news. So when a “dramatic” rescue happens, they jump on that like a hungry lion on a gazelle. There was another piracy event in 2011 that also resulted in 13 hostages being released – but it happened the same night as the invasion of Libya, so it was only ever mentioned as an also-happened in “A Day in the Life of US Seapower.”
So Bravo Zulu to the crew of the KIDD and the STENNIS on a job well done – not only did you possibly save the lives of 13 fellow seaman, but you’ve provided a powerful ideological response to the saber rattling of the Iranian Navy. But the crew of the USS CARNEY and the HDMS ABSALON aren’t getting calls from the SECDEF or pictorials in the Times – their reward will have to be the thanks of 34 Iranians, Pakistanis and Indians that will be returning to their families because of their hard work. BZ.