Friday, December 02, 2005

U.S. Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Media

In a strategy reminiscent of the Bush administration's manufactured-news scandal – in which the White House planted custom-written "news stories" in the media without labeling them as PR – it has now been revealed that the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by occupation troops as part of a propaganda campaign.

The stories, written by military PR specialists, are published in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written by independent journalists and praise the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and paint bright pictures of U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.

The newspapers are paid to run the stories through a defense contractor, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times that has been confirmed by U.S. military officials. The Lincoln Group, a defense contractor, hides any connection to the military, translates the stories and often poses as freelance reporters when delivering the pieces to Baghdad media outlets.

This wouldn't be the first time the Bush administration has gotten in hot water over propaganda. The Government Accountability Office said it was "covert propaganda" when Team Bush distributed video and news stories in the United States without identifying the federal government as their source.

Reporters desperately tried to get the president's take on it at yesterday's press briefing with Press Secretary Scott McClellan and, of course, could not get a straight answer. Have a look and feel the pain.
McClellan: Well, we've seen the reports. We first learned about it when we saw the reports yesterday, I think in the Los Angeles Times was the first place that that was reported. We are very concerned about the reports. We have asked the Department of Defense for more information. General Pace has asked people to look into the matter and get the facts, and so we want to see what those facts are.

Q: Well, the military has admitted that they've been doing it. Does the White House find that acceptable, unacceptable?

McClellan: Well, what the Pentagon has said is that they don't have all the facts; they want to gather the facts and then talk about it further. We want to know what those facts are, too. We are very concerned about the reports that we have seen.

Q: So this is a bit of a hypothetical, but should it be determined that, in fact, they have been doing this, would the President find that acceptable --

McClellan: I'm not going to engage in a hypothetical. Let's find out what those facts are.

Q: Well, then what is the basis of your concern?

McClellan: The reports that we've seen -- the media reports.

Q: But if you're concerned, that suggests that you would not approve of this.

McClellan: That's why we asked the Department of Defense to look into this. And we're seeking more information. I know that the Pentagon is seeking more information, as well. General Pace said he didn't know what the facts were -- he was asked about it just last night on a news program, and he said that he had just learned about it, as well.

Q: At a time when the President talks about trying to build institutions, free institutions in Iraq, does even the level of reporting on this so far undercut that message?

McClellan: Well, the United States is a leader when it comes to promoting and advocating a free and independent media around the world, and we will continue to do so. We've made our views very clear when it comes to freedom of press. And in terms of this specific issue, again, what we want to do is find out what the facts are, and then we'll be able to talk about it more at that point. But we are very concerned about the reports.

Q: But this administration also has a history of having some questions made about paying columnists and having packaged news made available.

McClellan: I think the President made very clear what his views were on those issues, and some of the practices that had occurred were stopped, and steps were taken to prevent that from happening again.

Q: Well, would his views be similar on this particular issue?

McClellan: I've expressed our views on this issue at this point.

Q Who's watching the store, really? How can we spend millions of dollars to plant positive stories in Iraq and nobody around here knows --

McClellan: Again, this is --

Q: -- anything about it? How is that possible?

McClellan: This is based off some media reports. We want to find out what those facts are.

Q: How did they get their hands on the money to begin with?

McClellan: You might want to direct your questions to the Department of Defense to find out more information, Helen, because they're looking into it.

Q: But it isn't a separate world. It's your world.

McClellan: That's why we're trying to find out the facts.
McClellan referred to "Helen" at the end, so I'm assuming that was my hero, Helen Thomas hammering on him the whole time.

Republican Senator John Warner (R-VA) said he was concerned about the specter of the U.S. promoting a democracy, while indulging in such overt propagandizing in the media of an occupied country.

"I am concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up as a democracy," said Warner. "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."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) hit the nail even more squarely on the head, ripping the program as a scheme that "speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap. If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."