Strength through truth

Objective truth, just the facts, spin or propaganda – the diversity of viewpoints about military public affairs is as wide as the spectrum of opinions about the armed forces. But for the past half century, the common training ground for those entrusted to shape opinions about the U.S. military has been the Defense Information School (DINFOS).

In 1964, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued a charter to establish the joint school, where the military branches study the principles of mass communication.

In 2013, 2,227 U.S. military servicemembers, international troops and federal employees graduated from one of the school’s 30 courses, which range from basic print journalism to broadcast management and just about every related activity in the field of mass communications.

Now located at Fort Meade, Md., the school has an impressive list of alumni, including former Vice President Walter Mondale, late NBC News anchor John Chancellor, Hollywood movie adviser Dale Dye and movie critic Gene Siskel.

“The value of DINFOS as a school that’s multimedia cannot be overemphasized,” said Clarence Page upon his induction to the DINFOS Hall of Fame in 2013. A Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Page attended DINFOS before serving with the Army’s 212th Artillery Group at Fort Lewis, Wash. “Though I have a journalism degree, there was so much I learned at DINFOS that I did not learn in journalism school.”

Assisting journalists covering the military is also important, says retired Marine Col. Keith Oliver, who chairs DINFOS’ Public Affairs Leadership Department. “In the military, especially, trust and integrity demand public accountability. ‘Maximum disclosure-minimum delay’ is the mantra taught at DINFOS and, except where legitimate security concerns dictate otherwise, the public affairs officer’s job is to ‘get it out there’ – fast.”

Prior to the school’s founding in 1964, each military branch relied on a variety of schools and individual training to communicate with the public and its internal audiences. Originally located at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., the school relocated to Fort Meade in 1995 and later consolidated the Defense Photography School at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Fla., and the Defense Visual Information School at Lowry Air Force Base, Colo., under its umbrella. DINFOS itself is a component of the Defense Media Activity (DMA).

While it will never be confused with SEAL training, students are aware of the power of the press and affectionately refer to those who graduate from the intensive courses as “DINFOS-trained killers.” In addition to meeting the school’s academic challenges, they’re expected to meet the military standards set forth by their respective service branches.

“What we do here is important,” says Army Col. Jeremy Martin, DINFOS’ commandant. “The public affairs and visual information practitioners who study at Defense Information School go all over the world, in war and peace, to bring no little measure of accountability and transparency to the American people. They expect no less, nor should they. Our motto, ‘Strength through Truth,’ says it all. If our nation is to send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way, the very least we can do is provide an accurate accounting of their extremely serious and dangerous work, whether those missions are reported by the civilian news media we assist, or with our own cameras, laptops, pens and radio equipment.”

DINFOS’ instruction covers far more than how to publish a compelling article or produce a segment for the Pentagon Channel.

“Classroom teaching is our forte, and we have great success in the online world too, but we also teach by demonstration,” Martin says. “When one of our departments, for example, conducts a graduation ceremony, we are still teaching. We show students how to stage a proper ceremony – to include details like proper lighting, an attractive and accurate printed program, water for the guest speaker.”

While an accredited journalism school usually requires four years of college instruction, DINFOS trains combat correspondents in just 12 weeks. That includes basic writing or broadcast training, with supplementary photography, editing and electronic-journalism coursework.

The American Legion National Headquarters currently employs at least six DINFOS graduates, including Peter Gaytan, executive director of its Washington office.

“My DINFOS training has proven invaluable to my work in D.C.,” Gaytan says. “The education I received in media and public relations helps me better serve The American Legion when delivering our message to Congress, the administration and national news outlets.”

Lee Harris, who served as the Legion’s national deputy director of public relations, spent eight years as a DINFOS instructor during his Air Force career.

“Time was tight,” he says. “Three weeks is not a long time to teach radio or television skills. The vast majority of (my) students more than 40 years ago headed overseas to provide news and entertainment to those who needed to hear a bit of home.”

From training personnel to act as media representatives to molding journalists, photographers, broadcasters and radio announcers to publicize military news, the mission of DINFOS is much the same as it was 50 years ago: fulfilling the communication needs of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Oliver, who examines the DINFOS model in his book “Command Attention: Promoting Your Organization the Marine Corps Way,” credits the school with refining servicemembers’ professionalism and communication skills. “DINFOS equips the young specialists well to be able to work alongside and assist their civilian counterparts. Initial training – followed by assignments aboard our ships, posts and stations – renders hands-on appreciation for deadlines, photo angles and other aspects of print and broadcast journalism,” he says. “Such value to civilian journalists who find themselves covering American forces is really a byproduct, since military men and women assigned to what academia calls the ‘communication arts’ are storytellers in their own right.”

Though it’s been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, DINFOS ensures that the U.S. military has people equipped to handle both.

John Raughter, media manager for the national commander of The American Legion, is a 1984 DINFOS graduate.