Iraq’s Massaged Media

News sources around the world report that the Bush war machine is using supposedly fact-based media in Iraq to push its pro-military propaganda. The US Senate, in a closed session of its Armed Services Committee, questioned Pentagon officials about allegations that the nation’s armed forces are planting pro-war pieces and stories that paint the Bushites’s Iraq rebuilding efforts favorably in Iraqi newspapers.

From the BBC:

The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that articles trumpeting the work of US and Iraqi troops were written by US soldiers, and translated into Arabic by a defence contractor, who then helped place them in Baghdad papers.

Although many were basically factual, they presented only one side of events and omitted information that might reflect poorly on the US or Iraqi government, the newspaper said.

The newspaper said the stories were then presented as unbiased accounts by independent journalists.

US military officials in Baghdad have said they have a programme to get “factual information” about ongoing operations into the Iraqi news, but would not comment on the specifics.

A defense department official stationed in Baghdad offered a wee bit more. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch was quoted as saying, “We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public but everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction.” He added that this runs counter to Al Qaeda honcho Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom Lynch accused of using the media. “He is lying to the Iraqi people. We don’t lie – we don’t need to lie,” the DoD spokesperson said.

Committee Chair John Warner (R-VA) says he doesn’t know if the reports are true. Still, he told the Associated Press that “I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy. … A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media.”

The AP provides information on the military’s efforts:

One of the companies involved — the Washington-based Lincoln Group — has at least two contracts with the military to provide media and public relations services. One, for $6 million, was for public relations and advertising work in Iraq and involved planting favorable stories in the Iraqi media, according to a document.

The other Lincoln contract, which is with the Special Operations Command, is worth up to $100 million over five years for media operations with video, print and Web-based products. That contract is not related to the controversy over propaganda and was not for services in Iraq, according to SOCOM spokes[person] Ken McGraw.

The Bush-run military is using the press to further its agenda? I’m shocked – shocked, I tell you.

OK, I’m not. Somewhere in the recesses of my little grey cells, I recall another Bush department that spread around cash to make sure positive stories about the administration’s No Child Left Behind program made their way to the media. David Isenberg, a senior analyst with the Washington-based British American Security Information Council, remembers this too, and wrote about it in the Asia Times:

…[P]aying off the Iraqi media to run good news mirrors what the Bush Administration has been doing at home.

For example, in the past year it was revealed that the Bush Administration paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars to a prominent conservative commentator, Armstrong Williams, to promote a new education law that had been strongly supported by President George W. Bush. The Education Department paid a public relations firm for a video that promoted the law and appeared as a news story, without making clear the reporter was hired as part of the deal.

Similarly, some-time reporter … James Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, violated a ban on “fake” news stories by reprinting White House news releases verbatim.

The gist of the latest story is that beginning this year as part of an information offensive in Iraq, the US military began secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the US mission in Iraq.

And don’t forget syndicated right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher, who received $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services to promote Bush’s “traditional marriage” initiative in 2002. The administration paid Gallagher to write articles and brochures for the plan; in addition, she received $20,000 from a Justice Department grant to the National Fatherhood Initiative to compose a report for the group. The problem wasn’t that Gallagher took a paying gig with the government – it was that she, like Armstrong Williams, never disclosed it, which violated her ethics as a journalist and cemented the notion that the Bush Administration wasn’t above paying journalists to trumpet its doings.

This is interesting: Isenberg notes that the scheme to buy psotive news coverage in Iraq was not a new one.

Even before the Iraq invasion, the Pentagon planned to create its own in-house propaganda and disinformation operation, to be called the Office of Strategic Influence. The program was supposedly killed after critics pointed out how easily the phony news it created could drift back into the domestic media.

Apparently, the critics were spot on – and the White House is worried about any potential fallout.

Spokesperson Scott McClellan – apparently still employed despite his recent absence from the public eye – told reporters that the administration is “seeking more information from the Pentagon,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

For the Pentagon’s part, the LA Times reports that officials claim to be clueless.

Senior Pentagon officials, including Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they had no knowledge about the secret campaign before the Los Angeles Times reported it in Wednesday’s editions.

“There’s pressure to get the answers, but it’s frustrating because here we are two days into this and we still haven’t heard anything back from [Iraq],” said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The question becomes whether you take McClellan or the Pentagon officials at their word.

Even if the stories the military planted were essentially factual, it doesn’t matter (and the truthfulness of what was printed is still up for debate). If the US government forks out money to have supposed news items printed that praise the US government, isn’t there a conflict of interest? It is one thing for an impartial journalist to report pro-US news or to praise Bush’s Death Brigade or programs in an article. It is quite another to have the Bushites massaging the media to toot their horn. If, as the LA Times reported on Nov. 30, these “news items” reported that some newspapers ran the pro-US pieces alongside genuine reportage, the US is guilty of a dishonest act. Additionally, some of the articles for which the US paid were labeled as “advertisements,” but the Times says these pieces did not specify the identity of the advertiser. Any respectable ad will tell you the product being sold and the entity selling it.

Given the Plamegate scandal, the recent indictments of prominent Republicans and the dwindling support for the Iraq invasion and occupation, this news will not help improve the administration’s increasingly tarnished credibility. I have never supported this military action, but I can only feel for people of integrity – from all parties – who did support Bush’s “war.” Surely they deserve better than a military that violates basic decency and ethics to pursue its goals.

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2 thoughts on “Iraq’s Massaged Media

  1. I really don’t have a problem with the military writing its own positive stories for the Iraqi press. I also don’t mind that they paid newspapers to run the stories. But this stuff is only ok if they attributed it to them. If the military has Major Joe Schmoe write an article and pays to have it run in the press, that’s no problem if the by-line is “Major Joe Schmoe, USArmy”. That let’s everyone know what the source is and then they get to decide how reliable it is. But when the army gets it published as if it was writen by some independant journalist, this is a problem, because no one can decide for themselves.

    And there’s a deeper problem. Now that it’s become public (and if they wanted it to be kept secret, they should have remembered Ben Franklin’s old daying: “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”), everyone in Iraq is going to be leary of positive news stories, because they will not be sure if it’s real reporting or if it’s USArmy propaganda.

    A free press only works if people trust it to be free. Otherwise, it will be merely considered to be part of the propaganda machine.

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