When Spooks Were Reporters and Reporters Were Spooks

It's been a busy week for Fake News. But at least one commentator is pining for the days when even more news was fake.

It was a busy week for Fake News (Jon Stewart, are you listening?), what with revelations first in the Los Angeles Times, and then follow ups by Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau and the New York Times reporting that the Pentagon has been planting stories in the Iraqi press and pays for favorable coverage.

Maybe you thought there was no “other side” to this story, no possible defense of this practice — we certainly thought so — but if so, you were wrong. Comes now one Walter Jajko, a professor of defense studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C, who has tossed into the ring his two cents in favor of more and better invented news.

Writing on the Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times, Jajko tells us that “it’s about time” the American military started to “buy off” Iraqi journalists.

Jajko pines for the good old days, when American spooks planted stories in the press and on the radio, a time when “the CIA owned or subsidized, at various times, more than 50 newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals and other communications facilities, most of them overseas.” Good times, indeed. “Paid CIA agents,” he continues, “infiltrated a dozen more foreign news organizations, and at least 22 U.S. news organizations employed American journalists who were also working for the CIA. Nearly a dozen U.S. publishing houses printed some of the more than 1,000 books that had been produced or subsidized by the CIA.”

All true, but is that sordid chapter in the history of the U.S. press something to emulate?

We think not. And know what? The White House and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee apparently feel the same way.

A more pressing matter than Jajko’s wistful remberances of spooks past however, is his apparent ignorance of efforts the current government is already making to control foreign media and plant friendly stories. He claims that “The United States Information Agency, the only open, global information organization run by the U.S. government, was abolished in 1999, supposedly because it served no purpose in the post-Cold War world. It has not been replaced. U.S.-sponsored entities such as Radio and TV Marti (which broadcast to Cuba) and Al Hurra, the U.S. television station broadcasting to the Arabs, have proven ineffective.”

While he’s right that outlets like Marti and Al Hurra have been mostly ineffective, it’s not for lack of effort, and Jajko either doesn’t know — or willfully ignores — the realities of the U.S. government’s commitment to controlling the message it sends out overseas though its own media outlets.

As we reported back in May, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, (BBG) which oversees all non-military U.S. international broadcasting, currently shares $1 billion in federal funding with the State Department to run the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio Free Asia (RFA), Radio and TV Marti, and the Middle East Television Network (MTN). The BBG’s chairman is Kenneth Tomlinson, who was recently ousted as the chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after an internal investigation found that he broke federal law and violated the CPB’s rules in his efforts to promote more conservative voices in domestic public broadcasting.

It’s long been a knock on reporters who work for VOA and the other government-funded networks that they’re producing little more than government propaganda, but given CJR Daily’s many email exchanges with a few of those reporters this past summer, we can state that this isn’t the case — in fact, they’re unhappy with the meddling of Tomlinson and others in the stories they produce, and many have begun to feel like they’re fighting a losing battle.

Just last month, PR Week reported that an outside company, 3 Roads Communications, was “awarded a two-year contract by the Voice of America (VOA) to continue developing international broadcast products designed to present US policies, culture, and institutions in a better light.”

This was a major point in a piece in the March/April issue of CJR, which reported that under Tomlinson, “Voice [of America] people are nervous about the future of journalism at their network, some fearing it will be replaced by pure propaganda.”

So, while Jajko seems to think that we can do a lot better at flooding disinformation across the globe, and hence run the risk of further corroding our image internationally, he should be heartened to know that we’re already doing plenty to get the government’s squeaky-clean message out there.

The CIA operatives he so obviously misses would no doubt be proud.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.