The Bush administration’s wartime propaganda campaign has journalists’ credibility under fire
From the Winter 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.
By Veronica Rodriguez
T he Department of Defense’s most recent campaign to combat what it calls the “inherent filter” of the media is being described by journalists as yet another attempt to further tarnish the credibility of the American press.
Since reporters have been “negligent” in covering the positive stories from the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon says, officials there have decided to take matters into their own hands. In late November, the DOD launched a 24-hour satellite newsfeed from Baghdad to provide the American people with information journalists have “buried,” according to a defense spokesperson.
The feed, which is paid for with American tax dollars, is available to local and national broadcast TV stations in the U.S., and will provide uncut access to hearings and briefings. What’s more, local TV stations will have the opportunity to interview select military commanders.
According to the defense spokesperson, journalists have ignored America’s progress in Iraq, and more “positive” coverage would present a better picture of the war.
“Part of the Department of Defense and public affairs’ goal is to communicate internally . . . and to the American public,” the defense official said. “That’s one of our communications goals, and that is an inherent goal in our operations.”
Although the DOD claims the program was created to supply local TV stations with news that was otherwise unavailable to them — the stations aren’t obligated to pick up the content — there are those who remain leery of the Pentagon’s intentions. Dave Busiek, news director for KCCI-TV, a CBS affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, says it is unlikely the information will be of any benefit to local stations, and suspects the DOD has ulterior motives.
“I don’t have any (way of) knowing directly,” Busiek said, but noted the upcoming presidential election. “Certainly I think that the administration feels that they are making progress in Iraq and that they are not getting enough coverage of that.
“And I think anyone could definitely see that this (24-hour satellite feed) would have an impact on the reelection campaign.”
Since President Bush boldly announced on May 1 the end of major combat in Iraq, the steady-stream of American soldiers killed in action has been headline news in magazines and newspapers, on the Internet and TV broadcasts. Since that time, nearly 380 U.S. soldiers have been killed, as of early February, bringing the total number of American deaths in Iraq to more than 500. The U.S. government has not released the total number of American soldiers wounded, but it is estimated to be in the thousands.
As a result of such coverage, the Bush administration continues to challenge what journalists define as “news.” Thom DeFrank, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the New York Daily News, says the media doesn’t need the help.
“I think the coverage from Iraq has been fair,” DeFrank said. “The bottom line is that . . . American soldiers are still getting killed and that, overall, things are not going good in that country.”
This is not the first time the Bush administration has run into a controversy over the use of propaganda. News reports in early 2002 revealed a Pentagon plan to provide foreign journalists with false information in the hope that their stories would “influence policymakers and public sentiment abroad,” as reported by The Washington Post.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rejected those allegations. “What it was to do was an open question, even today as it ends its very short, prominent life,” Rumsfeld told The New York Times.
But the administration’s latest “communications” project, the 24-hour newsfeed, comes at a time when media companies are under increased public criticism for publishing stories that turned out to be inaccurate. Among those false tales are the heroics of P.O.W. Jessica Lynch (she didn’t fire a single bullet when her truck came under attack), a mob in Mosul slitting the throats of two U.S. soldiers (the soldiers were killed, but their bodies were never mutilated), and U.S. soldiers killing 46 to 54 rebel forces in the Iraqi city of Samarra (hospitals in the area later confirmed only nine deaths).
Although reporters based those stories on information received from U.S. military officials, the public has blamed the media for the dissemination of inaccurate “news.”
“Obviously, a lot of Americans have problems with the press,” said Paul McMasters, First Amendment Center ombudsman, “and you cannot separate the mis-reporting with the public’s disenchantment of the press.”
According to the First Amendment Center’s 2003 “State of the First Amendment Report,” conducted in June, 46 percent of respondents said the press has too much freedom to do what it wants, and more than two out of three people said the government should be able to review reporters’ stories from military combat zones in advance of publication.
Such sentiments have many reporters worried and questioning the practice of using unnamed government officials as their primary — from war zones, sometimes only — source of information.
“The use of anonymous sources is a double-edge sword,” said DeFrank, of the Daily News. “On the one hand, you’re more likely to get honest and candid information of what’s going on. At the same time, it’s easier for an anonymous source to feed you erroneous information than an on-the-record source.”
DeFrank, who was an Army public affairs officer for nearly 20 years, says “there is a lot of hostility toward the press by the military in Iraq,” and that U.S. military officials often abuse their power by giving out misleading information.
In addition to being fed false reports, journalists in Iraq have complained about harassment by coalition troops. According to media reports from Iraq, both U.S. and foreign reporters have been physically assaulted and detained by coalition forces, who have also confiscated newsgathering equipment and, in some cases, ruined photographs and videotapes.
In November, 30 Washington, D.C., bureau chiefs signed on to a letter sent to Lawrence Di Rita, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, outlining numerous examples of reporters being harassed. The letter, initiated by Sandy Johnson, bureau chief for The Associated Press, explained how reporters are being prevented — in violation of Pentagon rules — from collecting information and informing the public of government activity. In essence, certain reporters are being prevented from doing t heir jobs.
“On the one hand, it’s tempting to conclude that [the military] is trying to avoid information from getting out,” said George Hager, national security editor for USA Today. However, “to give them the benefit of the doubt, I don’t know that this is a concerted attempt to block bad news from getting out . . . but it certainly has to raise suspicions.”
Among other tactics used by the Bush administration to control reporting on the war is a recently clarified policy that prevents the media from photographing flag-draped caskets as they arrive at military airbases. Although the policy dates back to the early 1990s, it had gone largely unrecognized until the Pentagon ordered military airbases last March to begin enforcing it.
Doug Clawson, managing editor of Stars and Stripes, said enforcement of the long-ignored policy is a way to hide American casualties and prevent the telling of stories that will inevitably lead to a groundswell of public opposition to the war.
“I think that they think it may be damaging for the public to see what the residue of war can be,” said Clawson, whose independent daily newspaper is funded by the Department of Defense and is read by military personnel and their families.
Although the Pentagon has “preached” to journalists about better ways to cover the war, Hager says reporters should continue to strive to make balanced news judgments, showing the good in addition to the bad. However, if U.S. casualties persist, “inevitably the day-to-day story is that Americans are getting killed,” he said.
And the bottom line, said Jack Stokes, media relations manager for The Associated Press’ Miami bureau, is that it’s “the job of editors and news organizations” — not the government — “to determine what’s newsworthy.”