Fellow reporters apparently didn’t care too much for the question asked by Fox News correspondent James Rosen in a recent Pentagon press briefing. “Would you say that Barack Obama, as commander in chief, has had a positive impact on the morale of the men and women of the United States armed forces?” Rosen asked Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, on Feb. 13.
Chuckle, chuckle, chuckle went a rumble in the briefing room.
For the record, Kirby waved off the very topic: “I have to really take issue with the question” and dismissed it as “political” in nature (see transcript below).
On Tuesday night’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Rosen acknowledged his poor reception among the Pentagon beat reporters. “You heard in the briefing room at the Pentagon, where I am not a regular, the sort of titters from the Pentagon Press Corps at my even asking the question. The admiral, whom I respect deeply for his 28 years of service in the Navy, said that I had asked a political question. And I told him to no, I hadn’t. I had asked a question about the relationship between the commander-in-chief and the morale of the rank and file.”
Individuals may argue whether Rosen had asked a political or an apolitical question. What’s beyond dispute is that it’s a dumb and asinine question. As defined here, “morale” is “confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time.” Gauging the morale of a group may be possible if that group has a handful of members — say, a string quartet or a book club. In such a case, Rosen could call a few members and capture a pretty good sense of how the organization is faring.
There are nearly 1.4 million people on active duty in the U.S. armed services, however. So on what basis did Rosen gather his impression that morale was a big enough matter to place before the Pentagon’s press secretary? Did his company commission a random-sample poll? Did he find a low-morale petition on the Internet? Neither: “I have to stress that this is not a systematic survey I have ever taken. It’s just my own informal soundings of people at various levels in the military as I go about my travels here in official Washington over many years time,” Rosen told O’Reilly in an admirable disclosure. “And the sense I pick up is that the rank and file and some measure of the officer corps don’t regard Barack Obama as the kind of commander-in-chief they would like to see. They would like to see somebody who perhaps is more aggressive in combating Islamic extremism around the world. And that includes ISIS.”
Any reporter who covers large organizations gets e-mails from sources pleading for morale coverage. The Erik Wemple Blog, for instance, has gotten morale-related tips several times in the past few months. Cops reporters, too, get this garbage all the time. In 2003, then-Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis (a colleague at the time) wrote a history of complaining from D.C. police union officials over the department’s alleged morale problems. It was extensive.
Not only is morale quite often immeasurable; it’s also mostly irrelevant. Even if Rosen could somehow document a drop in morale in the U.S. military, could he ever establish a causal connection with a drop in performance? In readiness? That’s where actual journalism enters the picture, though Rosen displayed none of it.
Q: Just one last question, off-topic and — and not asked in any — in a kind of a snarky way, but simply for the purposes of the record of history, would you say that Barack Obama, as commander in chief, has had a positive impact on the morale of the men and women of the United States armed forces?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think — look, I — I have to really take issue with the question. I — look, the commander in chief is the commander in chief, and it doesn’t matter who he is. He has by dint of his office, and by being elected by the American people, he deserves and he has the respect of every man and woman in the United States military. And that’s just the way it is.
We — we swear an oath to the Constitution, to the American people. We don’t swear an oath to a party. We don’t swear an oath to a person. We don’t swear an oath to an office. We swear an oath to the American people. That’s what we are all about. And it doesn’t matter to us who is in the White House or who sits on Capitol Hill. What matters is that we do the job we’re told to do.
Q: So, you discount the proposition that the top officer in the United States armed forces can have some impact on the morale of the rank and file.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, leadership always has an impact on — on people. That’s what leadership is. I didn’t say that leadership is devoid from morale. What I said is that we don’t — we don’t make those kinds of judgment calls when you — when you wear this uniform. You serve whoever the commander in chief is, and you serve them nobly, and you serve them with honor, and you serve them with 100 percent of your energy.
I am not going to get drawn into a political debate here. I just — you’re asking the wrong guy. I’ve been in the Navy 28 years and I’ve served under many presidents, and I can tell you that speaking for myself, it doesn’t matter to me who sits in that office. That doesn’t change the way I do my job.
Q: Just let the record reflect I didn’t ask you a political question —
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes you did.