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Lessons in Transparency from the Battle Field 

Today’s food system certainly is not “at war,” but we can draw some helpful parallels in the role of transparency from the U.S. military’s evolving relationship with the media.

The Vietnam War was pivotal as it redefined the military’s approach to dealing with the press. Vietnam was called the “Living Room War” because for the first time, television brought the realities of war into American homes every night. Newspaper and radio were the mediums that covered World War II. The military kept tight controls on what could be reported, and journalists willingly complied. The public received highly controlled, always positive news coverage, designed to support military objectives.

Vietnam, however, was vastly different from World War II in more ways than one. The advent of TV news changed the communication battlefield by eliminating the ability of the military to control images and messages. Reporters had direct access to the front and shot raw footage of battles. The graphic images captured on tape were aired on the nightly news.

Those images and the uncensored comments from soldiers changed the social discourse about war and military intervention.

Losing Control

The military tried in vain to regain control. Daily press briefings were conducted in the rooftop garden of the Rex Hotel in Saigon. The press, seeing through the misleading reports, dubbed these the Five O’Clock Follies. Reporters quit attending the daily briefings and struck out on their own across Vietnam to find stories. The daily diet of incomplete and inaccurate information compelled the media to track down alternate sources and to disregard information from the military.

Fast forward to 1983 when the United States invaded Grenada. While the conflict in the tiny Caribbean nation is largely forgotten, it was the first U.S. military action since the end of the Vietnam War.

And how did the government handle the media? All journalists were barred from even setting foot on the island. A group of reporters chartered a boat to try to reach land. The Navy fired two warning shots at the boat and it was forced to turn back.

A growing mistrust between the media and military prompted the government to take a new approach. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, as the buildup began for the invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon proposed something radical – embedding reporters with troops.

From the military’s perspective, did embedding achieve its goals? An informal assessment says yes. Support for the military continues to be high – achieving record levels in 2015. A scientific analysis by RAND Corporation concludes that the embedded press could be widely viewed as successful in achieving the military’s public relations’ goals.

Lessons for the Food System

The military’s experience from Vietnam to Iraq show the dangers of choosing to withdraw from public discourse, and the benefits of transparent engagement.

Today’s consumers expect – and deserve – transparency from those who produce their food. They are leery of “big ag” and “big food,” fearing that profit will outweigh public interest every time.

Research from The Center for Food Integrity shows that authentic transparency paves the path to trust and can demonstrate that food and agriculture – no matter the size – share the values that matter most, like safe food, quality animal care and environmental stewardship.

Turning back the clock to a pre-Vietnam era and limiting access to information will only further erode trust. Embracing the lessons of the last 50 years, becoming engaged in the conversation and being authentically transparent will create the foundation for sustainable trust.

The food system is making progress, but there is more work to be done.

It’s time to open the barn or food plant and invite our neighbors around the world to witness the remarkable process that puts food on their plate, whether conventional or organic, homemade or home delivered, heritage or heat-and-eat.

Charlie Arnot
CEO, The Center for Food Integrity
From Arnot’s book Size Matters: Why We Love to Hate Big Food