Military-First Web Publishing

Department of Defense officials are consistently undecided about embracing the latest Web technology. Proponents mention its strengths in supporting public affairs, recruiting efforts and family readiness, while protesters cite issues with operations and network security, as well as bandwidth drain. It’s the position of this author that military Web-first publishing leads to greater benefits than risks. This report combines public opinion research, open-source government information, Internet use surveys, newspaper circulation statistics and experience in Army external information programs. This report does not offer official views of, or endorsed by, the U.S. government.

Introduction

A digital revolution has aimed to automate, miniaturize and organize everything over the past couple of decades. Technology is cramming information into smaller and exceedingly more portable devices. Hard disk drives provided a whopping five megabytes when microcomputers shipped thirty years ago. Today, thumb drives boast 128-gigabyte capacities. With all that action, it’s amazing printing presses have persisted as a publishing standard for nearly 600 years.

In the last 30 years, a digital revolution has allowed information to flow freely. Anyone can publish today using minimal resources. People have instant access to an endless array of topics on the Internet. It’s impossible to ensure a future for the printed word. One day, books and periodicals will become nostalgic artifacts, but not yet. The three biggest proponents for printing hardcopies are durability, portability and readability. These incentives continue to justify hefty printing costs, bulky storage requirements and the drawbacks of linear content delivery.

To succeed their printed forefathers, electronic publishing must find ways to survive adverse conditions, stay powered in remote locations and resemble the unreflective matte-look of printed material. These needs are required before printing presses are retired to the publishing hall of fame. In the meantime, online newsrooms should augment printed products.

Electronic publishing platforms are replacing hardcopy print products, slowly but surely. Paid newspaper circulation peaked in 1984, in the aftermath of an economic recession, but then staggered into the 1990s (NAA, 2010). At that point, distribution fell fast. By 2008, it nearly matched circulation in 1945. The reduction in newspapers occurred with the expansion of the World Wide Web.

Web-first publishing keeps people informed through instant content delivery. Information can be disclosed the moment it’s made public. This revision of mass communications helps renounce the dependency on civilian news agencies to publicize quick and truthful newsbreaks.

Department of Defense correspondents report directly to the people, not the media, by publishing online. Public affairs offices should establish a Web presence, as well as support distributed reporting sites, to uphold the DOD policy to provide the people “maximum disclosure, minimum delay,” as stated in media training.

Increased military commitments

The Department of Defense has been engaged in relentless overseas contingency operations for nearly 10 years. Since 2001, the Armed Forces have toppled two brutal regimes and hunted down terrorists who threaten harm to the United States, its people and its global interests. Our men and women have freed foreign nations from ruthless oppression and offered humanitarian assistance.

But the tough part is not over. A recent increase in the defense budget will ensure the military momentum continues. President Barack Obama signed the 2010 DOD Appropriations Act into law Dec. 19, 2009 (Miles, 2009), thereby approving $636.3 billion for the nation’s defense. This is an increase of more than $124 billion from fiscal 2009. The financial support will assist in supplementing some 42,000 troops in Afghanistan with 17,000 others (House, 2009).

“This budget provides the balance necessary to institutionalize and finance our capabilities to fight the wars we are in today and the scenarios we are most likely to face in the years ahead, while at the same time providing a hedge against other risks and contingencies,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates in an online DOD press release for the 2010 budget proposal (Department of Defense, 2009).

Informing a more informed public

It’s imperative to keep the nation informed of the Armed Forces employment and the tax dollars allocated to its activities. The public must support sending troops overseas to fight. Long-term exposure to world events has altered our nation’s perspective of combat. Millions of Americans have been involved in the international fight against tyranny, in some way, for many years now. More than 1.4 million citizens are serving in the military on active duty status (Department of Defense, 2009). Thousands have completed one-year tours in combat – two, maybe three, times. In addition, countless civilians continue to travel with our troops; many have spent several years overseas. Loved ones bring home stories after seeing, hearing, touching and smelling the affects of war.

With increased military commitments taking place in foreign lands, there’s a lot to discuss about the nation’s defense posture, as well as plenty of room for misunderstandings. The more stories are repeated, the greater the margin for inaccuracy. Military Web-first publishing programs encourage confidence in the nation’s war fighting capabilities by disseminating accurate and timely information to the masses.

Military Public Affairs

Military public affairs offices explain overseas contingency operations by preparing informational products for external release. The materials fulfill the obligation to keep American people informed about their Armed Forces. Some stories may be difficult to cover at times; some may damage a unit’s otherwise faultless reputation. Regardless of possible embarrassments, the military must remain accountable for all actions. Timely news products always strive to keep media relations on the offense, never the defense. This tactic keeps routine troubles from turning into media spectacles.

Key responsibility during contingencies

The Armed Forces are required to “ensure a free flow of news and information to the news media, the general public, the internal audiences of the Department of Defense, and the other applicable forums, limited only by the security restraints,” as stated in the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs directive (Department of Defense, 2008). Materials that could compromise national security or mission accomplishment are withheld from the public domain – nothing else.

Public information affects public opinion

Public opinion is a driving force in any social structure. Shifts in perceptions regarding military maneuvers are extremely energetic during a time of terrorism threats and enemy engagement. People readily adopt the ideas that propaganda promotes when it fits their prejudices. The media, a primary propagandist, organizes and disseminates beliefs using the best platform for the widest circulation.

Mass media campaigns hand the public something to think about. Public opinion experts suggest their interpretation of events results in a phenomenon known as “the world outside and the pictures in our heads” by (Lippmann, 1922). The cultivation theory clarifies how consistent exposures to media changes the way the people perceive the world around them. Agenda-setting techniques elicit fears or fearlessness by spinning stories in one direction or another. The power of the press is flexed by pseudo-events, which exist merely to rouse reporters.

Civilian media, an information conduit

Military public affairs offices have traditionally relied on civilian media agencies as an information conduit for quickly explaining military activities. Specialists collect, edit and distribute content for civilian media agencies to publish. Official government materials enter the public domain ahead of approval from an appropriate releasing authority, as well as an operations security officer, whenever applicable. Military units routinely furnish quotes, statements, photographs, videos and interviews.

Since the materials enter public domain, the matter in which they are used is impossible to regulate. Civilian media organizations may use statements out of context, explain half-truths or otherwise distort and sensationalize stories to boost newsworthiness. Journalists are taught to find timely newsbreaks that contain impact, conflict, novelty, proximity and prominence. Reader fascinations with crime and violence established the newsroom saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

A clamor of government censorship concerning the horrors of war once spilled into papers. The press spent several years battling a ban on photographing caskets containing fallen servicemembers. The policy protected troops and their families from the demoralizing affect such images generate. Nonetheless, President Barack Obama lifted the restrictions in early 2009, but alas, media interest was lost. Thirty-five media outlets covered the first casket arrival that tolerated press photography, April 5, (York, 2009). Two days later, a fallen soldier attracted 17. Eventually, the covered dwindled down to one: the Associated Press. The conflict over censorship made more headlines than the impact of Americans killed in combat.

Offensive versus defensive reporting

The people appreciate urgency and first impressions are prominent. Content needs to hit newswires before misleading information infects a situation. Immediately sending out complete and transparent stories avoids wasting significant resources to set the record straight later on. Relying on outside agencies may lead to incomplete or misleading reports. This then requires extreme tactics to convince the people of the error.

Public opinion of Army detention facilities had been marred after photos revealed abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Consistent news reports flaunted the images of inhumane and sadistic conduct by a small group of disturbed soldiers and civilians. The lurid imagery infuriated Americans and Iraqis. The acts were considered inhumane or coercive without lawful justification (Jones, 2005). Considerable time was spent trying to prove the behavior is not indicative of normal or acceptable practices in the Army.

Military Web-first publishing circumvents content contortionists and assures the public receives an unabridged and unadulterated message when it’s needed most.

Streaming News Online

Innovations to online communication platforms have introduced systems to sever the military’s reliance on civilian media reporting. People have started depending on the Internet during and after national emergencies. A military correspondent meeting them online seems only logical. Web sites providing distributed reporting services present an effective method for information-sharing endeavors.

Online communication innovations

Web applications supply Internet users with rapid information sharing vehicles and improved interagency operability. Since 2004, terms like “Web 2.0” and “participatory Web” have been used to describe the evolution of online technologies. The latest Web applications are improving interactive collaboration with attractive front-end interfaces. People are becoming more Internet savvy and dependent on Web sites for information. Social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing services and Web logs (blogs) are constantly updated with contributor content.

Post-9/11 Internet use

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, seized over 3,000 lives and set the United States on alert. In the days immediately afterward, online activity dropped in even the most dedicated surfers (Rainie & Kalsnes, The Commons of the Tragedy, 2001). Watching more television newscasts is thought to have caused the Internet’s downward trend.

Even though Internet use abruptly declined, people searched Web sites more aggressively than before. They rummaged through cyberspace for anything related to the attacks and their aftermath. According to comScore data, news Web sites experienced a huge spike in traffic: CBS news jumped 819 percent; CNN, 680 percent; and MSNBC, 236 percent. People were digging for news; many found it online.

The World Wide Web became a certified constituent in mass communications after 9/11. Internet use returned to normal toward the end of September. Americans still relied on television newscasts for updates, but Web sites confirmed their potential as a public service. Content related to the attacks and victim assistance consistently posted online. Government sites allowed tips for terrorism investigations. People logged into free accounts to send instant e-mails offering condolences and patriotic sentiments.

The Internet and the Iraq war

Immediately after the initiation of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 77 percent of online Americans used the Internet for some sort of connection to the invasion (Fox & Rainie, The Internet and the Iraq war, 2003). For the first time ever, Pew Internet & American Life Project surveys revealed that more than half of those online received news from Web sites. Television still prevailed as a news source, but people flocked to the Internet to find additional information, learn and share opinions, send and receive e-mails, express views and offer prayers.

As troops stormed Baghdad, reliance on the Internet for news far exceeded the levels experienced during the onset of military action in Afghanistan a year-and-half earlier. A survey between May and June 2004 showed about one quarter of Internet readers had searched online for news sources containing stories, photographs or videos that mainstream media wouldn’t publish or broadcast (Rainie & Fallows, Internet as Unique News Source, 2004). The Internet as a news source climbed dramatically as troops fought tyranny overseas – from 54 to 92 million readers between March 2000 and June 2004.

Distributed reporting services

Distributed media projects allow embedded reporters – professional or amateur – to send immediate updates from every corner on earth. Online readers have become reporters by regularly contributing to blogs and social-media sites. Citizen journalists collect, analyze and disseminate news from around the globe without an editor’s spin. However, the unbridled explanations of situations sometimes carry false reports, worthless jargon and wild defamation.

The Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System is a state-of-the-art operation that combines the citizen journalism concept with the structure of military public affairs outfits. The military-funded distributed reporting project coordinates timely, accurate and reliable information from DOD correspondents around the world. DVIDS is an online historical archive of daily military activities from their source of origin. Based in Atlanta, Ga., the communications hub coordinates broadcast-quality video, high-resolution photographs and comprehensive stories from subject-matter experts. In addition, hometown shout-outs and holiday greetings support troop morale, family readiness and recruiting offices. DVIDS is an example of a stellar online news source that frees the military from depending on a civilian information conduit.

DVIDS helped rush a rebuttal to misleading news regarding H1N1 vaccine distribution plans for war fighters in Southwest Asia. CNN reported a shortage of vaccines, Nov. 4, 2009 (Mount, 2009), even though officials in the region hadn’t expected one. The story further heightened newsworthiness by announcing a possibility that detainees would receive inoculations before Americans. Straight from the source, a news story posted online, using DVIDS, to explain that a split shipment had been expedited to balance speed and security of the product, Nov. 5 (Senger, H1N1 Vaccine Rushed to Central Command War Fighters, 2009). It included photos of a U.S. servicemember receiving the first H1N1 vaccination shot. A follow-up story announced that both shipments had been completed, Nov. 12 (Senger, Central Command H1N1 Vaccine Shipments Complete, 2009), enough for every CENTCOM war fighter.

Web-first publishing

The growth of the Internet’s information expressway caused an apex in newsroom competition. Web-first publishing is turning into a requisite for industry credibility. Placing stories online allows the widest dissemination at a cost savings. It also opens up a world of nonlinear story telling that printed copy cannot produce. Readers are often allowed to contribute to Web site stories – news becomes conversation instead of lecture. Moreover, a viral marketing effect across social networks helps spread the word.

Online newsrooms

Online newsroom reporters are able to send stories from remote locations while upholding a 24-hour release rhythm that captivates reader interest. The Web-first mentality is sweeping media organizations away from print products. Paid daily newspaper circulation has been falling steadily since peaking in the mid 1980s – over 7 million copies left circulation between 2003 and 2008 (NAA, 2010). More and more, news publications are choosing to rely less and less on hardcopy distribution and revenue.

Newsrooms are adopting a Web-first mentality to help ensure survival. In May 2004, slightly less than 41 million unique visitors checked online newspaper Web sites (NAA, 2010). That number jumped to nearly 70 million in May 2009. Advertisers have started to withdraw their hefty budgets. In 2008, print newspaper advertising expenditures dropped 17.7 percent, while online editions fell only 1.8 percent (NAA, 2010). In 2007, print dropped 9.4 percent and online raised 18.8 percent. During the recent economic recession, numerous newspapers felt compelled to fold their print editions for an online presence only.

Web-first publishing has weaved into the framework of several military newsrooms, but it’s still not widely adopted. Several Army installations in the United States have initiated online news sites to support base papers, such as Fort Benning, http://www.thebayonet.com; Fort Bliss, http://www.fbmonitor.com; Fort Hood, http://www.forthoodsentinel.com; Fort Lewis, http://www.nwguardian.com; Fort Polk, http://www.fortpolkguardian.com; and Fort Campbell, http://www.fortcampbellcourier.com. “Stars & Stripes,” a daily military publication with worldwide bureaus, is also represented online, where paper editions are readily available for download. When organized accordingly, the Web presence draws interest toward upcoming print publications.

Widest dissemination, cost savings

Roughly 184 million American adults are spending an average of 13 hours per week online (Harris Interactive, 2009). Time spent online has nearly doubled since 9/11. Reaching these readers is achieved at minimal costs. Web publishing requires an Internet server with dedicated hardware and software technicians. It does not call for costly inks, chemicals or other printing press consumables. Handling hazardous materials and paying hefty distribution costs are also eliminated.

Electronic subscription services automatically send content to Internet browsers, search portals or e-mail inboxes. Online delivery schedules ought to consider daily news-searching rhythms. Stories should post online prior to 6:30 a.m. to effectively compete with morning television and daily newspapers. News Web site traffic also spikes in the afternoon and early evening. Traffic bounce rates will rise if readers fail to find new topics around these times.

Nonlinear story telling

Books are written to inform, inspire, educate and amuse, but they don’t work at the speed of thought. People are constantly making connections through association. Reading a book about widget A, may make one wonder about widget B, but the book continues to discuss A, the author’s area of expertise. Print publishing delivers content in a read-only linear format. Authors lead readers without divergence, other than permitting back-and-forth flipping though pages.

Hypertext liberates readers from a linear learning experience. This online system of writing connects information on the Internet using hyperlinks, which allow instant jumps between documents. Items can be called upon at will, or automatically, depending on the author’s intentions. Hypertext allows readers to find out about widget A, click over to widget B, and then back to A, or even C and D and E. Input fields automatically search for pages referencing a single word, or an entire phrase. Embedded trails group related or supporting content. A story about soldiers can be linked to equipment explanations, supporting photographs and associated news. The wide array of Web pages offers endless possibilities. An online survey of cyberspace recently received a response from over 200 million sites (Netcraft, 2010).

News as conversation

News stories often stir up reactions in readers. Thanks to Internet-hosted hypertext, a shift in power has enabled that previously passive voice to be heard. Encouraging reader contributions and feedback leads to innovative partnerships for future news stories. Comments improve content by adding information or bringing up missed circumstances.

People enjoy participatory journalism for several reasons. Many partake to develop a greater understanding of intricate or intriguing topics, or build a reputation with like-minded professionals. A substantial population joins in purely for entrainment or creative expression. Comments under military news stories often send words of encouragement for the troops.

Some individuals infiltrate online discussions to create conversational chaos. They pop up like a weed in a flower garden. If left unattended, behavior that trolls for disruption quickly sours the experience for others. Hosting online disputes and vulgar language leaves a poor impression on visitors. Moderators must enforce a “just be nice” policy to keep participation productive. Clearly defined rules are necessary to effectively enforce such a policy.

Social media software

Advances in Web software have introduced a new-age venue for social-networking. Thousands of posts constantly pour into YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Stories, images and videos are posted for registered users to comment and share with others. Many military outfits construct online profiles to support public affairs offices, recruiting commands and family readiness groups.

Each military branch is represented with a fan page on Facebook, a leading social-networking site. The official U.S. Army page has over 130,000 fans, while the Marines have more than 214,000. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander, has a Facebook page where fans post public messages – many are soldiers thanking the general for his leadership. Several military-related online newsrooms feed updates to Facebook, such as Army Times, Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times and Navy Times.

Concerns

Information and operations security specialists are concerned about hosting increasingly more explanations of military activities online. Protesters warn that recurring spills of information over huge online social networks threaten mission accomplishment and troop safety. Irresponsible online habits compromise the integrity of computer systems. Some system administrators consider using the Internet for social activities an unnecessary waste of network bandwidth.

Operations security

Mishandling or openly discussing classified information has caused serious security leaks. Critical information may not be classified when collected in part, but become a security risk by assembling several pieces together. Adversaries plan and act against military maneuvers by collecting on unit intentions, capabilities and activities. Inadvertent disclosure must be avoided in social atmospheres, to include online stories, comments, e-mails, images, videos and audio clips. Information shared on the Internet is open to over 1.7 billion people worldwide (Internet World Stats, 2009). Failure to safeguard sensitive material can be devastating.

Network security

The Internet contains malicious trails that lead Web surfers to “viruses,” software programs capable of collecting, damaging or destroying data. After hearing an explanation, nearly half of all Internet users say they’ve had spyware or adware infect their home computer (Fox, Spyware , 2005). The most active Internet users are often the victims. Other than Internet use, viruses also spread through media devices. In November 2008, the DOD banned the insertion of external flash drives into workstations after a worm infiltrated military networks (Shachtman, 2008). The policy caused significant disruptions in workflow since widespread exchanges of information had depended on thumb drives.

Web site administrators and users who fail to afford adequate account protection, such as setting strong passwords or tough security questions, can pave the way to the disclosure or loss of data. Sensitive government or proprietary information can be disclosed to the public domain by a hijacker who gains access to group or personal accounts.

Network bandwidth

Web sites are capitalizing on an increase in household bandwidth. Sluggish dial-up modems aren’t as common today. In fact, three out of five adults use broadband connections at home (Rainie, Internet, broadband, and cell phone statistics, 2010). Web sites frequently host or stream large files, such as high-resolution videos and photographs. What’s more, most send a series of cross-network call-ups from numerous sources on the Internet to enhance user experiences. Restrictions on Internet domains deemed nonessential prevent bogged down network speeds.

Conclusion

Military public affairs programs ought to embrace online communication platforms with a Web-first mentality, in order to quickly release accurate information to the public. More and more, people are searching for news online, as opposed to print publications. Hypertext documents and digital storytelling offer readers advantages that linear learning methods cannot replicate. Social-networking Web sites help spread stories through cyberspace gossip. Today’s information-sharing technologies are effective and resourceful tools for informing the people of matters pertaining to their national defense.

The best mitigation plan to uphold operations and network security is to teach responsibility. Organizations must instill Internet security and etiquette training. Introducing workplace productivity strategies will re-enforce measures that limit bandwidth consumption. Simply blocking access to social-networking sites only leads to creative ways to avoid filters. Besides, military personnel don’t need defense networks to access Web sites and share information. They can connect at home, or through one of many wireless devices. By teaching compliancy and concerns, the benefits of accepting an online publishing presence and using social-media software exceed the risks.

Works Cited

Department of Defense. (2008, September 5). Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Defense Technical Information Center: http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/512205p.pdf

Department of Defense. (2009, May 7). DOD Releases Fiscal 2010 Budget Proposal. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Department of Defense: http://www.defense.gov/Releases/Release.aspx?ReleaseID=12652

Department of Defense. (2009, November 30). Military Personnel Statistics. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from DOD Personnel & Procurement Statistics: http://siadapp.dmdc.osd.mil/personnel/MILITARY/miltop.htm

Fox, S. (2005, July 6). Spyware . Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2005/Spyware.aspx

Fox, S., & Rainie, L. (2003, April 1). The Internet and the Iraq war. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/The-Internet-and-the-Iraq-war.aspx

Harris Interactive. (2009, December 23). Internet Users Now Spending an Average of 13 Hours a Week Online. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Harris Interactive, Inc.: http://news.harrisinteractive.com/profiles/investor/ResLibraryView.asp?BzID=1963&Category=1777&ResLibraryID=35164

House, K. (2009, February 18). President Obama Approves 17,000 Troops for Afghanistan. Retrieved 01 15, 2010, from Associated Press: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/1487314/president_obama_approves_17000_troops.html?cat=9

Internet World Stats. (2009, September 30). World Internet Users and Population Stats. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Internet World Stats: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

Jones, A. (2005). Investigation of the Abu Ghraib Prison and 205th Military Intelligence Brigade. New York: William S. Hein & Co., Inc.

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company.

Miles, D. (2009, December 22). President Signs 2010 Defense Budget Into Law. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Department of Defense: http://www.defense.gov/News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=57217

Mount, M. (2009, November 4). H1N1 vaccine arrives for troops in war zones, but not enough. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/11/04/h1n1.military.vaccine/index.html

NAA. (2010, January 15). Advertising Expenditures. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Newspaper Association of America: http://www.naa.org/TrendsandNumbers/Advertising-Expenditures.aspx

NAA. (2010, January 15). Newspaper Web Sites. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Newspaper Association of America: http://www.naa.org/TrendsandNumbers/Newspaper-Websites.aspx

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Netcraft. (2010, January 7). January 2010 Web Server Survey . Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Netcraft: http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2010/01/07/january_2010_web_server_survey.html

Rainie, L., & Fallows, D. (2004, July 8). Internet as Unique News Source. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2004/Internet-as-Unique-News-Source.aspx

Rainie, L., & Kalsnes, B. (2001, October 10). The Commons of the Tragedy. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Pew Internet & American Life Project: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2001/The-Commons-of-the-Tragedy-How-the-Internet-was-used-by-millions-after-the-terror-attacks.aspx

Senger, D. (2009, November 12). Central Command H1N1 Vaccine Shipments Complete. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from DVIDS: http://www.dvidshub.net/?script=news/news_show.php&id=41460

Senger, D. (2009, November 5). H1N1 Vaccine Rushed to Central Command War Fighters. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from DVIDS: http://www.dvidshub.net/?script=news/news_show.php&id=41142

Shachtman, N. (2008, November 20). Military USB Ban Meant to Stop ‘Adversary Attacks’. Retrieved January 15, 2010, from Wired: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2008/11/military-usb-ba/

York, B. (2009, September 29). Without Bush, media lose interest in war caskets. Retrieved January 2010, 2010, from Washington Examiner: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/politics/Without-Bush-media-lose-interest-in-war-caskets-8310113-62427012.html

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