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Does Marine Corps video featuring Reagan speech contain partisan message?

Sep. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
26th MEU Deployment Documentary Intro
26th MEU Deployment Documentary Intro: Intro sequence for a multimedia documentary capturing the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group.
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Screen shot from Introduction sequence for a multimedia documentary capturing the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) deployment to the U.S. 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group ()

A new promotional video released by the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit features surprisingly political language, courtesy of a voiceover from a 1964 Ronald Reagan speech.

The nearly five-minute video, produced by 26th MEU combat cameramen, is billed as a teaser for a longer multimedia documentary project following the unit through its current deployment in the Navy’s 5th and 6th Fleet areas of responsibility, embarked with the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group.

Over footage of the ships, troops and aircraft — underscored by a militant drumbeat — the film features a voice recording of future president Reagan’s iconic “Time for Choosing” speech, a launching point for his political career, delivered while on the presidential campaign trail with Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.

“This is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face,” Reagan’s voice intones, over the image of ships cutting through the ocean. “That their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender.”

Delivered during the tension of the Cold War and the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the speech is thought to have catapulted Reagan to political success; he was asked to run for governor of California shortly thereafter.

In the context of contemporary politics, particularly with the resurrection of Goldwater’s hawkish “peace through strength” ideology during the most recent Republican presidential campaign, the 50-year-old speech retains its partisan overtones.

“Where, then, is the road to peace? Well, it's a simple answer after all,” Reagan can be heard saying near the end of the promotional video. “You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, ‘There is a price we will not pay.’ ”

The speech has been used in recent years to narrate military footage in videos that have received viral attention on YouTube and reposted on popular conservative blogs and websites. But this appears to be the first time the speech has been used in an official Marine Corps public affairs production.

Posted Sept. 4, the video had garnered just over 2,000 views on Tuesday.

Officials with the 26th MEU, which remains deployed in the Arabian Sea, did not immediately make someone available to discuss the video. A 2nd Marine Division spokesman said he couldn’t address the project without knowing the background.

A 2010 Marine Corps order governing Marine Corps public affairs makes it clear that public affairs messages “must be careful to maintain objectivity and truthfulness, or there is a danger of losing credibility,” but it doesn’t contain guidance specific to repurposing content of political speeches in videos or releases. The guidance also restricts public affairs support of programs and events sponsored by partisan political organizations or ideological movements.

Experts in journalism and media ethics said use of the speech in a Marine Corps production raised questions.

“I think any organization that is publicly funded should try very hard to be neutral and nonpartisan and as impartial as possible,” said Fred Brown, a former Denver Post editor, communication ethics professor, and member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee. “It is certainly justifiable to talk about policy, but to talk about politics is dangerous territory.”

A former Army National Guard public information specialist, Brown said the context of the video, such as intent to demonstrate military motivation and firepower, could neutralize the political nature of the speech somewhat. Still, he said, “if it’s a partisan speech, I wouldn’t use it.”

Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute and co-editor of the 2013 book “The New Ethics of Journalism,” noted that many political speeches, such as John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address in 1961, tend to lose political meaning but retain historical meaning as time passes.

However, she said, it wasn’t clear that this Reagan speech had made that transition.

“Ronald Reagan is obviously the patron saint of Republicans,” she said. “You could invoke his words as sending a coded message to a certain constituency that you’re on their side and they’re on your side, and you’re all in this together. And that would not be Democrats.”

McBride said the question of political objectivity in military public affairs was an important one because of the distinctive U.S. political system in which the military remains separate from transfers of power and troops are sworn to serve whomever the sitting commander-in-chief happens to be.

“To the extent that the military lets some of those standards slide, we risk losing something there,” she said. “If you value that, as we should, then we need to pay attention to these small things.”

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