Buying the News; L.A. Times Sniffs Out Payola in Iraq

PR people are expensive. And often they don't, or can't, produce the results you might like. Wouldn't it be easier to just show up at your local paper with fistfuls of cash, and ask nicely if they'd print what you'd like them to?

PR people are expensive. And often they don’t, or can’t, produce the results you might like. Wouldn’t it be easier to just show up at the offices of your local paper with fistfuls of cash, and ask nicely if they’d print what you’d like them to?

Most American papers (even in spite of increasing financial pressures) would still turn you away. But, as the Los Angeles Timesreports today, the U.S. government has been applying that approach with a great deal of success in a place with a slightly less developed sense of journalistic ethics: Iraq.

According to the Times story, the U.S. military is giving new meaning to the phrase “Behind the News” by “secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.” The articles are penned by “information operations” troops, then translated and placed in Iraqi news outlets by a PR firm contracted by the military. “Though the articles are basically factual,” the Times reports, like most payola pieces, “they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as ‘Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism,’ since the effort began this year.”

Iraqi outlets print the stories with varying degrees of disclosure. Some “ran the articles as news stories, indistinguishable from other news reports,” while “[o]thers labeled the stories as ‘advertising,’ shaded them in gray boxes or used a special typeface to distinguish them from standard editorial content,” the paper notes. “But none mentioned any connection to the U.S. military.”

According to editors interviewed by the Times, payments vary from as little as $50 to as much as $1,500 per article. In one case, the paper reports, “a low-key man arrived at [a] newspaper’s offices in downtown Baghdad on July 30 with a large wad of U.S. dollars. He told the editors that he wanted to publish an article titled ‘Terrorists Attack Sunni Volunteers’ in the newspaper. He paid cash and left no calling card, employees said. He did not want a receipt.”

One Iraqi editor notes that if had known the stories were coming from the deep-pocketed American military, he would have “charged much, much more.” (Hey, if you’re going to sell your soul, you may as well charge what the market will bear.)

Next step: Instead of paying for the milk, buy the cow. One source tells the Times that “the [Pentagon] task force also had purchased an Iraqi newspaper and taken control of a radio station, and was using them to channel pro-American messages to the Iraqi public. Neither is identified as a military mouthpiece.” The source wouldn’t name the outlets, “saying that naming them would put their employees at risk of insurgent attacks.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the military trying to plant stories in foreign media outlets. Three years ago, the Times notes, “the Pentagon was forced to shut down its Office of Strategic Influence … after reports surfaced that it intended to plant false news stories in the international media.” The current practice apparently doesn’t violate any U.S. law — unlike the cases of Karen Ryan and the administration’s pay-for-play contracts with various conservative pundits. But the military’s willingness to take advantage of an Iraqi press whose ethical standards are, shall we say, still a work in progress seems beyond shabby. After all, these are the people we’re supposed to be tutoring in the principals of democracy — not bribing to print rosy, one-sided views of what’s going on under their noses.

Some Iraqis are already contrite, which is more than one can say for the payola artists in uniform. Luay Baldawi, an Iraqi editor who published the faux news pieces, which he apparently received electronically, told the Times that in the future he would be “more careful about stuff we get by email.”

Sound advice.

Any techies out there who want to help Baldawi and the rest of the Iraqi press set up their virus detectors to filter out propaganda? That would teach them more about the craft of journalism than all the easy money in the world.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.