Thursday, August 27, 2009

Surprise, Surprise, Pentagon Tries To Shape War Coverage

Stars & Stripes and The New York Times are reporting that the Pentagon has hired The Rendon Group, a DC-based PR firm, to rate journalists' war coverage as positive, negative, or neutral, before they are granted permission to embed themselves with the military. The Rendon Group helped to create the Iraqi National Conference, which in turn helped sell the invasion of Iraq to the American public--a fact that the Times' report leaves out. Apparently that is not relevant information to their readers.

The Pentagon denied these reports, but then Stars & Stripes released this yesterday:

"Contrary to the insistence of Pentagon officials this week that they are not rating the work of reporters covering U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Stars and Stripes has obtained documents that prove that reporters’ coverage is being graded as “positive,” “neutral” or “negative.”

Moreover, the documents — recent confidential profiles of the work of individual reporters prepared by a Pentagon contractor — indicate that the ratings are intended to help Pentagon image-makers manipulate the types of stories that reporters produce while they are embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan."

It should not be surprising that the Pentagon would try to shape the coverage of an increasingly unpopular (question 26) occupation. That has happened in the past, and it will continue to happen in the future.

Here are two examples that come to mind immediately. If anyone has any others, please leave them in comments. First, we've recently seen the military parade retired generals around as "independent analysts" on the major news networks to put a pretty face on the occupation of Iraq. Much has already been written about this, and I have nothing to add right now. It's simply worth noting as an example of the military attempting to shape the public discourse.

And, to cite an older example, here's the words of David Halberstam, speaking to students at the Columbia School of Journalism. In this passage, he describes standing up to a Pentagon General in Saigon (via Greenwald):

"Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.

General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.

And I stood up, my heart beating wildly -- and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.

I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right."

Again, it's not surprising that the Pentagon would act in these ways. I don't mean to excuse their behavior in any way, but this kind of intimidation should be expected from people who are hired to kill other people. That's why its so important for the media to push back and redouble their efforts to expose that which the military is trying to suppress.

Sadly, examples of the media stepping up to this task are often the exception, not the rule. For some far from conclusive, but interesting nonetheless, evidence, I'll quote Sy Hersh from an episode of Democracy Now! Amy Goodman interviewed him about his initial coverage of the My Lai massacre, and he had this to say:

"I was working in Washington as a freelance writer and began just—I had followed the war and knew what was going on in some visceral way and knew what was—there was something there. And I began—I finally got to the point where I began to find kids in the unit, and I was writing stories. I think I wrote five in five weeks as a freelancer. And it was just as the young boys talking over the weekend were ignored by the press, I had a hell of a time getting the major press to run the stories, for sure. This is always the way it is. You know, there’s always a disconnect between the bad stuff that goes on that everybody knows goes on and what I guess you could call the mainstream press want to write about. I don’t know why, but it’s true, there always is."[emphasis added]

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