Mea Culpa

“ … media is a universe, journalism is a galaxy” – Anna Hiatt, The Warhorse

Ms. Hiatt’s words are timely as we navigate the era of “fake news”, a phenomenon that she and her teammates resolved to mitigate in their selected field for journalistic expertise – war and trauma. Meet Anna Hiatt and Lindsey Melki, resident Farmers at the Nomad location …

Anna formerly served as an adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, an opportunity that not only allowed her to hone her craft, but also introduced her to a kindred spirit in the person of Thomas J. Brennan, former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and infantryman serving in post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Brennan founded the Warhorse project.

Joining Mr. Brennan and Ms. Hiatt in the mission is Chief Operations Officer, Lindsey Melki, a West Point grad and former Captain in the U.S. Army. Ms. Melki deployed to Baghdad to serve the post-9/11 military effort in Iraq.

The Warhorse is a single-issue newsroom with a mandate to tell the personal stories of those who have served and continue to serve in America’s post-9/11 military missions. The work is not solely focused on overseas deployments, but includes broader issues affecting the military population in our midst – outside of the general plaudits thanking service members for their sacrifice or sporting flags on lapels.

These are deeply personal stories encompassing the investigative realm alongside first-person narratives that personalize the men and women who serve. America’s service members are your brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, your neighbors and co-workers.

Single-issue newsrooms are an emerging field – perhaps an organic counter to the aforementioned, all-encompassing media universe in which punditry, politicians and other interested parties increasingly crowd out the hard reporting and investigative journalism that forms the lifeblood for democratic society.

The Warhorse aims to show that while service members hold a set of life experiences that are arguably distinct from those of general society, these individuals nevertheless form an integral part of our national fabric.

Ms. Hiatt and Ms. Melki identify a fundamental driver for the aforementioned chasm in that systemically, we tend to look at like-for-like issues affecting both military and civilian populations as two separate problems affecting two distinct populations requiring solutions sets unique to each. Such instincts drive a popular tendency to view service members as alien in some way, different from “us” as people to be viewed from a distance.

Together with Mr. Brennan and a team of part-time staffers, writers and fact-checkers, the Warhorse endeavors to bridge that chasm by reframing the way the public at large thinks about the individuals serving in the United States Armed Forces, how the public at large “supports the troops”, and the real-life reflections and issues that those who serve experience.

The Warhorse seeks to bring their stories to the interested lay person – with reflections that will make you smile, laugh and to be sure, cry – identify with America’s service population from a common human denominator.  

I had the fortunate opportunity recently to sit down with Ms. Hiatt and Ms. Melki to discuss their mission – and despite my sense of being a fairly sophisticated observer of war and the security challenges facing this country – both militarily and otherwise, gentle coaching from Professor Hiatt made me acutely aware that my considered understanding was full of the very biases, narratives, and over-generalizations the Warhorse seeks to overcome.

My errors are replete across American society as citizens at large work to distill vast amounts of complex information into useable frameworks toward assessing the merits and faults of any given situation in domestic politics and the world of global affairs.

In the midst of our meeting, we received a news alert about a shooting at Walter Reed, affording Ms. Hiatt and Ms. Melki the opportunity to correct a narrative frequently advanced in the media universe - that such acts are committed by service  members (or civilians) suffering from PTSD.

Former soldiers (or civilians for that matter) with PTSD are not likely to open fire in public spaces as expressions of their angst. Rather, people who open fire in public places do so to strike fear into target populations. They are committing acts of terrorism, which is not an expression of PTSD.

As such, in instances where a shooting occurs and a service member is involved, the media is misinformed and that misinformation does indeed drive “fake news”.

The Warhorse mission is deadly serious and bridging the gap ought to be viewed as a critical first step toward healing an already much (too much) delineated American society. Toward that end and in support of their mission, we should recall that as a country, we can only stand if we are united.

Continuing efforts to view characteristic sets – whether military, civilian, gay, straight, black, white, etc. – can too often serve to form societal divisions. When said divisions are hardened and exploited, the republic falls prey to a variety of triggers that increasingly risk facilitating its downfall.

Finally, in this writer’s view, Ms. Hiatt and Ms. Melki have happened upon a potential path forward for our current media landscape in which “fake news” dominates and the American electorate is increasingly unable to navigate what serves as “information”.

The Warhorse is a non-profit, constituent member of an emerging class of single-focus newsrooms – other non-profit single-issue newsrooms include entities that dig into the intricacies of the important issues of the day – such as climate change, the death penalty, education, etc. Such issues garner less and less attention from the standard mediums for reporting - particularly as traditional outlets whipsaw to cover the everyday ins and outs of whatever is happening in Washington.

Herein may lay American democracy’s salvation – the republic cannot exist without a well-informed citizenry – the citizenry requires real information to make reasoned decisions about the nation’s political future.

As Americans continue to struggle to discern what is real and what is not, this writer hopes these single-issue news rooms might band together to form a common platform for real news – not fake or driven by an interested agenda but an accessible, trusted collective of newsrooms that consistently resolve to adhere to the strongest possible standards for rigorous reporting, fact checking and productive approaches to investigative journalism.

The Warhorse’s mission and brand is as yet evolving. Check out your co-Farmers’ work, sign up for their newsletter – proactively engage in a way that truly supports our service members by working to understand their experiences – overseas and at home.

Citizens that are armed with real, personal information about the experiences of war and those who serve will produce an electorate that pushes legislators to approach matters of war and peace as the deadly serious matters that they are.

War is not a game – there are real implications for the humans who serve, the families they support and who support them, as well as the target populations into which many service members are deployed. To them all I say, mea culpa.