With retirement soon approaching, Lt. Col. Barry Johnson discussed his career and source relationships with a journalism class from Columbia College Chicago through Skype.
Johnson, a public affairs officer in the United States Army, previously served as the spokesman and public affairs officer for the U.S. detention of illegal enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in support of the Global War on Terrorism and Operation Enduring Freedom.
When discussing source relationships, Johnson said it all comes down to trust.
“Some journalists are my best friends, but there are a number who have violated this trust.”
An extreme example of this was during the Saddam Hussein trials when media was told strictly not to broadcast any of it live. One specific network (no names) had secretly used their phone and was broadcasting Hussein’s trial live on their phone.
“The target could have been identified, along with the holding facility,” Johnson said. “It could have been dangerous for the suspect, but also the service men and women who were protecting his holding facility.”
During his tenure at Guantanamo Bay from February-July 2003, he instituted an aggressive policy for allowing media access to the detention camp in order to correct misperceptions surrounding the mission, according to his Center for Communication’s biography.
Prior to his position in Cuba, Johnson worked for three years in media relations with NATO, including serving as the NATO spokesman and director of public information for the deployment of 5,000 international troops to Macedonia in 2001 to avert a civil war by collecting weapons from insurgents. He was responsible for all media planning leading up to this mission, as well as serving as the spokesman to over 500 registered media.
When explaining what some of the benefits are of having a relationship and open communication with journalists, Johnson said he “gains a different perspective.”
“This allows for a discussion of all the possible perspectives,” Johnson said. “We have blinders on and don’t see the appreciation of other perspectives.”
Johnson also served as the public affairs officer for the U.S. Army National Training Center in California, where he was heavily involved with environmental issues and grooming public attitudes toward the expansion of the desert base to support future training; and in South Korea, where he was responsible for managing various publications targeting 75,000 military members and American civilians, as well as planning special events with the USO and various Korean organizations.
Johnson has been on active duty for 27 years, and has a strong sense of service to his country.
“I’ve invested so many years,” Johnson said. “I wanted to do everything I could and it was something I needed to do.”
Johnson earned a master of arts in communication from Washington State University and a bachelor of science in business administration from Lewis-Clark State College. Prior to beginning a career in military public affairs, he held a variety of leadership and staff positions as an Infantry officer during 19 years of service in the Army.
Although Johnson was in Afghanistan, his duties were strictly advising the district police and assisting the Afghan people develop their country. While in Iraq, though, Johnson had a hectic schedule to keep up with.
From briefings early in the morning, to speaking with the State Department, Johnson was working a 24/7 schedule.
“The time difference didn’t help,” Johnson said laughing. “There were always networks of journalists trying to get their stories.”
Finishing his discussion, Johnson explained the key difference between good journalists and bad ones; constraint.
“Journalists who took the extra step to gain an appreciation for who they were writing about and how the words used could affect their lives were the truly better journalists,” Johnson said. “They had the constraint to cover and inform the public of specific stories that mattered.”