Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld went on the
offensive against media criticism of the Pentagon's use of an
independent contractor to place positive articles in the Iraqi
press. "That story has been pounded in the media. It is very
attractive for the media because it is about the media, and they
like that. But we don't know what the facts are yet," Mr. Rumfeld
said speaking at Johns Hopkins University.
Now, pleading ignorance of the facts is not a good line of argument for Mr. Rumsfeld, who is both responsible for and highly involved in the U.S. military's information strategy in Iraq. Yet, it is certainly fair to say that the American media's reaction to the news has been knee-jerk and lacking in context. At least, we should have a better understanding of the extent and nature of the Pentagon's information campaign, before leaping to judgment.
Consider The Washington Post editorial of Dec. 2 on the subject. "Saying it was predictable makes it no less loathsome and damaging to find that the Bush administration has treated the Iraqi press, the Iraqi people and the very idea of Iraqi democracy with even greater contempt." Such offended purity on display.
The news about the Washington-based Lincoln Group's contract with the Pentagon to place positive articles in the Iraqi media was first published in the L.A. Times on Nov. 30. It is an important story, and it does merit far more reporting. But is also merits perspective and respect for the difficulty of presenting the U.S. government's point of view in the present free-wheeling, unstable, myth-ridden media environment of Iraq.
One cluster of questions focuses on the content of the articles being placed. If it is found on investigation, and the Senate has already started one such, that the Pentagon is deliberately spreading disinformation in the Iraqi media, this has got to stop and the parties responsible for the policy and its execution held to account.
Yet, according to the L.A. Times report that is not what is happening. "Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led effort to rebuild the country."
"Though they are basically factual [italics added], they present only one side of events and not information that might reflect poorly on U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said."
In other words, the problem allegedly is one-sidedness, not disinformation. This point is crucial, and often ignored or outright misrepresented in the debate here. "How long will it be before the Lincoln's Group's fabrications [italics added] insinuate themselves into the columns of the American press?" wrote Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times Dec. 3 in direct contradiction of his own paper's news story.
Secondly, how are these articles being placed? Key is whether the articles are marked clearly as advertising, which they should be, and whether employees of the Lincoln Group are misrepresenting themselves. Remember, it is a well-established practice in the United States for a government or non-profit to pay for placing an opinion article editorial in a newspaper. It is called advocacy advertising. The American Federation of Teachers, for instance, ran a paid editorial in the Sunday New York Times "Week in Review" section every week for years on end. Iraq's shoe-string media seem only too happy to take the money. One pragmatic editor told the L.A. Times, if he had know the stories were from the U.S. government, he would have "charged much, much more."
A third question is whether the Pentagon should be doing this? Ideally not, but the lack of a public diplomacy and communications strategy coming out the State Department drove the Pentagon a while ago to step up its own efforts. The Lincoln Group has also produced a public service campaign on Iraqi television warning against roadside bombs, as well as a campaign designed to encourage Sunni Muslim to vote in the constitutional referendum, both of which seem entirely appropriate.
And finally, how does the U.S. government best get the message out about progress being made in Iraq? Relying exclusively on the burgeoning free media in Iraq, which American resources are also helping to build, would certainly be far better, but is probably not realistic at this point. More is needed. Why, it is hard enough getting any positive or just even-handed news from Iraq out of the U.S. media itself.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times