This week, the media got carried away with an aircraft carrier story that turned out to be not what they originally believed. They later blamed the White House for misleading them, but only long after they failed to get the story fully correct.
On April 9, U.S. Pacific Command put out a press release, stating that its commander, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, had directed the USS Carl Vinson “to sail north” after departing Singapore that day.
The release stated that the “Carl Vinson Strike Group… will operate in the Western Pacific rather than executing previously planned port visits to Australia.”
However, what was not stated was that military exercises with the Australian Navy were not canceled, and the carrier would still do them before heading up north.
Reuters first reported the move, not mentioning the exercises were not canceled:
A U.S. Navy strike group will be moving toward the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula as a show of force, a U.S. official told Reuters on Saturday, as concerns grow about North Korea’s advancing weapons program.
CNN then published a story headlined: “US aircraft carrier-led strike group headed toward Korean Peninsula.”
A US aircraft carrier-led strike group is headed toward the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula, a US defense official confirmed to CNN.
The move of the Vinson strike group is in response to recent North Korean provocations, the official said.
National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said on Fox News the next day, it was “prudent” to move the strike group near the Korean Peninsula because “North Korea has been engaged in a pattern of provocative behavior.”
The idea that an aircraft carrier was heading to the Korean Peninsula seemed to underscore Trump’s tough talk against North Korea, and fed the media’s narrative that Trump was dangerously close to starting a war with North Korea, as it prepared for a possible nuclear weapons test later that week.
Two days later, on April 11, a reporter asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis about the change in plans. He also implied the carrier strike group was headed north.
“She’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time. There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we’re sending her up there,” he said.
Mattis misspoke when asked why Pacom made a public announcement, and whether it was to send a message to North Korea. He said the Vinson was no longer taking part in a planned exercise with the Australians, versus just canceling the port visits.
“I believe it’s because she was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise, and that’s what became public. We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise,” Mattis said.
Voice of America caught the mistake, reporting on April 11: “Despite comments from the U.S. secretary of defense, the Navy says the USS Carl Vinson Strike Group is still participating in planned exercises with the Australian Navy.”
The Pentagon later corrected the transcript of Mattis’ comments.
However, the report and the Pentagon’s correction got little notice, and the idea that Vinson was headed to North Korea as a show of force was already taken as fact, including by the president.
The next day, President Trump told Fox Business News: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”
On April 17, Defense News reported that the ships were conducting the scheduled exercises with Australian forces in the Indian Ocean, according to photos put out by the Navy’s own social media accounts.
The next day, the New York Times published a story headlined: “Breaking News: Aircraft carrier wasn’t sailing to deter North Korea, as U.S. suggested.”
News outlets then, in sensationalized headlines, characterized Trump as misleading the public, when most of them did not catch that the carrier was still participating in exercises with the Australian Navy.
The Los Angeles Times published an article headlined: “Trump said Navy ships were headed toward North Korea. They were going the other way.”
Liberal website Salon.com published an article reading: “Trump’s wrong-way ‘armada’: Strategic lie or idiotic blunder? Can it be both?”
Gizmodo wrote: “Experts Warn that Trump’s Lies About North Korea Hurt America’s Credibility.”
Media outlets also ridiculed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer for explaining that the strike group would eventually make its way up to Korea.
The aircraft carrier is now indeed on its way towards the Korean Peninsula.
Mattis this week had a chance to clear up his earlier statement when traveling with reporters to the Middle East. He said the Pentagon was trying to be open by announcing the change in the Vinson’s schedule, and that she is now indeed on her way up north.
The bottom line is in our effort to always be open about what we’re doing, we said that we were going to change the Vinson’s upcoming schedule. The Vinson, as I said on the record, was operating up and down the western Pacific, and we were doing exactly what we said. And that is we are shifting her — instead of continuing one direction as she pulled out of Singapore, she’s going to continue part of her cruise down in that region, but she was on her way up to Korea.
We don’t generally give out ship schedules in advance, but I didn’t want to play a game either and say we were not changing the schedule. And in fact, we had.
So, we’re doing exactly what we said we were going to do. She will be on her way, and I’ll determine when she gets there and where she actually operates. But the Vinson is going to be part of our ensuring that we stand by our allies in the Northwest Pacific.