Every few months, it seems, we hear a story about another plan by the Pentagon to try and “get around” the media filter that renders a steady stream of bad news from Iraq.
There’s no denying that the vast majority of reporting we see from that embattled country is bad — suicide bombings, tortured bodies dumped on the street, American casualties, reconstruction projects gone wrong; things have gotten so bad that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted earlier this year that he was even concerned that terrorists were “manipulating the media” to influence Westerners, that it keeps him “up at night.”
(We’re glad to know something does.)
In response, and in order to try to counter the flow of awful stories and images emanating from Iraq, it looks like the Pentagon will transcend the traditional channels of information management and get into the media game itself.
An Associated Press story yesterday discussed a new DoD memo one of its reporters got a hold of that said that “new teams of people” at the Pentagon “will begin working to ‘develop messages’ for the domestic 24-hour news cycle.”
But what might that mean? CNN.com followed up, and reported that the new operation is to have four branches: New Media, Rapid Response, TV and Radio Booking, and Surrogates. The idea is to massage the domestic media coverage of the war and of the Pentagon in general.
For example, the New Media branch will create “products and distribut[e] information” for the Internet, as well as through podcasting, DVDs and Web sites, including YouTube. Rapid Response will “Develop messages and products for the 24/7 media cycle.” For example, CNN says that “In recent weeks, there has been an increase in Pentagon-written letters to the editors of dozens of news organizations.” The TV and Radio Booking branch will “provide civilian and military guests for cable network and radio programs,” while Surrogates will “Provide information and visibility to the surrogate community” — which presumably means getting analysts to go on TV to express support for Pentagon programs, or for Rummy himself.
This all has a familiar smell, and this administration’s track record with clandestine canned news is rich indeed, from the “Karen Ryan” episode to the Video News Release scandal to Armstrong Williams and other pundits who were secretly (and lucratively) shilling for government programs. Just last week, the Defense Department Inspector General gave its blessing (PDF) to the Pentagon’s effort to buy good press in Iraq, through it’s contract with the Lincoln Group, which places positive stories about the U.S. military and the occupation in Iraqi newspapers.
That said, the whole operation seems largely unproblematic to us, provided one crucial test is met: Whenever the new office posts something to YouTube, creates a blog, writes a letter to the editor, or contracts with an analyst or friendly commentator to speak on its behalf, that it be clearly and prominently labeled as a product — bought and paid for — of the Pentagon. Other branches of the government have shown an inability — and a decided unwillingness — to come clean about their covert PR operations. Will the Pentagon be any different?