Retired Army general and former CIA director, David Petraeus, was the spotlight of a Q&A focusing on relations with the media Wednesday afternoon in the Wallis Annenberg Lobby.
Petraeus is known for his distinguished military career, during which he served for 37 years and eventually became a decorated four-star general. After retiring from the service, President Obama nominated Petraeus to be Director of the CIA. Today, Petraeus is a partner with global investment firm KKR, and serves as chairman of KKR’s global institute.
The event was moderated by Willow Bay, director of the School of Journalism, and included Philip Seib, vice dean of Annenberg. Both Bay and Seib asked Petraeus questions regarding the media, women in the military, Syria and Afghanistan.
Obama recently announced that the United States is sending Special Operations forces into Syria. The public now questions whether ground troops will be committed to fight ISIS later on.
“I have not been one who has advised that,” Petraeus said. “Syria has evolved into a regional sectarian civil war being fought by proxies, and now even has global dimensions with the addition of Russian forces that are actively supporting Bashar Assad’s regime forces. Syria is now a geopolitical Chernobyl.”
Petraeus said the presence of advisers is insufficient to deal with the scale of conflict.
“It’s spewing violence, instability, extremism and refugees — not just in Syria, but now obviously extending into Europe,” Petraeus said. “The 50 advisors certainly won’t be enough to stop this, but they actually will have a lot more effect than people realize. They will be able to provide a level of coordination and assistance that has truly transformed the way we are fighting in Iran and in Syria.”
Syrian warfare can seem too complicated and remote for civilians to fully understand. However, this humanitarian disaster is discussed daily across various media outlets. Petraeus believes the media has three responsibilities when releasing news stories: to provide accurate facts, a degree of context and characterization, such as the implications and conclusions of certain events.
“I think that the mainstream media does a reasonably good job in discharging its responsibilities to its customers,” Petraeus said. “The problem now is this: What is the media, who is the media? Every person with a cell phone is the media. Social media is playing a much, much more significant role — everything has to be reduced to the number of characters in a Twitter message. “
Petraeus said social media intensifies competition among journalists.
“There is an intensity of scrutiny because all of these different potential media journalists are in a sense competing with one another to write a story that will rise to the top of the heap.”
In addition to the war in Syria, there is an informational war. News outlets are fighting for attention. Seib noted that 500 million Tweets are sent per day. Bay explained the ways in which Annenberg prepares its students for this battle.
“We are teaching and training and equipping students to be really prepared for today’s current technology and emerging technologies, to be mindful of the audiences that they are speaking to and to be relentlessly focused on fundamentals — accuracy, timeliness, context,” she said.
While in the military, Petraeus also focused on these fundamental aspects of communication.
“Our goal, when it came to dealing with the press, was to be first with the truth,” he said. “We literally wanted to try to beat the bad guys to the headlines. And this is tough. If you lose the headline, you then become the subtitle. There is huge pressure.”
Petraeus even considered it a military responsibility to be available to and accurate in the media.
“We worked very hard to be accessible,” Petraeus said. “It’s not my army, it’s America’s army, and America has a right to know what it’s doing and to know the thoughts of the individuals who are leading it.”
The current debate is whether or not to allow women into combat. Petraeus recalled giving a woman a bronze star and purple heart in Baghdad. She was in a sustained firefight to protect her battalion commander, but he was killed. Petraeus emphasized the importance of standards. He supports both women and LGBT individuals being allowed to enter the armed forces, as long as the force can still uphold recruiting, readiness and retention.
“It has not been a big deal,” he said. “With standards, gay guys can’t hit on other guys as much as guys can’t hit on women. There are standards of behavior that apply to everybody. So that’s the same thing you have with the expansion in more areas for women. It’s about standards of physical performance … There are a lot of guys that will not meet these standards. If a woman can meet a standard, I think we should open it up.”
Overall, military forces are made up of people who not only can attack and defend, but also understand local nation building, how to work with the locals, how to address local governance issues and how to help a country rebuild itself.
“Firms, military organizations, schools, universities, everybody needs to preserve and protect the out-of-the-box thinkers — the bomb chuckers — that are very, very useful for igniting constructive, intellectual discourse,” Petraeus said.