Thursday, December 01, 2005

This News is All Good

More today on the Pentagon’s covert campaign to pay Iraqi newspapers to print upbeat stories about the war. As is often the case, it’s even worse than was first thought.

The New York Times reports that as even as the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are paying contractors millions of dollars to train journalists and promote an independent Iraqi media in the mold of the independent Western media, the Defense Department is paying millions more to a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm to buy off Iraqi newspaper editors and reporters in violation of one of the most fudamental journalistic principals.

The PR firm, the Lincoln Group, is paying about a dozen Iraqi journalists each several hundred dollars a month to do its bidding. In some cases, Iraqi newspapers were given stories ghostwritten by military information specialists that and ran verbatim.

One such story cited by The Times, headlined "The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq," was scornful of outsiders' pessimism about the country's future. The opening paragraph:

Western press and frequently those self-styled “objective” observers of Iraq are often critics of how we, the people of Iraq, are proceeding down the path in determining what is best for our nation.

If all of this has a familiar ring, recall that the Bush administration produced pseudo television news reports that were aired without any indication they had been prepared by the government. The practice was stopped after the Government Accountability Office found that the reports violated a law against covert propaganda. The law does not apply to such propaganda abroad.

A spokesman for the Lincoln Group refused to comment. (Got that? A PR firm refusing to comment?) What Lincoln might have said is that there is a place for propoganda in war, and that's absolutely true. But I would draw the line well short of using bribes to get unattributed stories full of happy talk planted in a media that needs to take seriously its role in an emerging democracy.

This is where Edelman PR group CEO Richard Edelman drew the line:

We don’t pay journalists to be on our side . . . If a free media is a central aspect of a democratic society, then we cannot allow our PR industry to impede its development. It’s a perversion of our business, an intentional blurring of a clear demarcation between paid and earned media.

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