It's the best journalism that $300 million taxpayer dollars money can buy. That seems to be what U.S. military officials in Baghdad are saying after it was revealed that they're paying Iraqi journalists to write "good news" stories in the local media. But that's what happens when you turn civilian functions over to the Pentagon, and it's a big mistake.
According to the Associated Press, U.S. military spokesmen in Iraq admit paying for favorable articles in Iraqi newspapers "as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space, as is customary in Iraq," and defend the dubious practice as part of a campaign "to get the truth out." Please! Enough already!
Apparently, the Pentagon contracted with third parties, including the Washington-based Lincoln Group, to market pro-American stories in order "to reduce the risk to the publishers." "We want to get the facts out. We want to get the truth out," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That's a laudable objective but he's going about it the wrong way because paying journalists is unethical and counter-productive.
During my 28-year career with the old U.S. Information Agency, one of my specialties was foreign media placement. And not once, never, did I pay for placement because that was the only way to maintain credibility with our local media contacts. What the Pentagon doesn't understand - and may never understand - is that once you start paying for media placement, your credibility is shot to hell and you've moved from the semi-respectable public affairs/public diplomacy business over the line into the murky world of paid publicity and advertising. That's a dividing line that every self-respecting journalist, Americans and foreigners alike, understands.
A personal anecdote: Early in my Foreign Service career, while serving as American embassy press attaché' in a Latin American democracy, I discovered that another agency of our government was paying for media placement. I immediately went to the ambassador and asked him to put a stop to that sub-rosa media activity on grounds that it was unethical and furthermore, that we could afford only one press attache' at a time. He agreed and told the other guys to cease and desist, much to their chagrin. We - myself and my Press Section colleagues - went on to set media placement records in that front-line country, which shall remain nameless for obvious reasons.
So it's not surprising that the State Department's new Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, and her civilian colleagues at the American Embassy in Baghdad were outraged when they learned about the Pentagon's multi-million-dollar paid publicity campaign. Ms. Hughes should urge her good friend, President Bush, to order the Pentagon to get out of the public affairs/public diplomacy business in Iraq, except when asked to participate in such activities by the U.S. ambassador or his chief public affairs officer.
Last week, Time magazine asserted that top aides at the State Department "are furious that the president's big speech ... touting progress in Iraq, was largely drowned out by disclosures that the U.S. command in Baghdad had been secretly planting rosy stories in Iraqi newspapers." Once again, military "psyops" specialists shot themselves in the foot, and now everyone involved in above-board public diplomacy programs in that strife-torn country must pay the price for the military's stupidity and inability to understand, or abide by, free press ground rules.
As the New York Times put it last week, "Even as the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development pay contractors millions of dollars to help train journalists and promote a professional and independent Iraqi media, the Pentagon is paying millions more ... for work that appears to violate fundamental principles of western journalism." But are we surprised? Not really, because these are the same folks who paid a few favored right-wing political commentators to promote Bush administration policies like No Child Left Behind.
A respected Christian Science Monitor columnist, John Hughes (no relation to Karen), who served as State Department spokesman during the Reagan administration, argued against paying foreign journalists as follows: "If America is to spread and nurture democracy, it must itself practice it and be seen to practice it. That's why it's distressing to see actions taken supposedly in support of this goal, but that ... contradict the principles we profess to stand by." Hughes added that the Bush administration's confusing position on torture only provides more ammunition to the enemies of the U.S. In other words, we should practice what we preach. What a concept!
Interestingly enough, it was a former USIA colleague who initially exposed the military's misguided media scheme. Patricia Kushlis, a USIA retiree now living in New Mexico, learned of the plan last spring when a Lincoln Group employee told her that they were engaged in public diplomacy on behalf of the Pentagon.
"Given my previous (Foreign Service) experience," she wrote to colleagues, "I asked what kind of public diplomacy (and) it took little probing to discover that the person hadn't a clue as to what public diplomacy entailed ... (and that the company) was up to its neck in dubious U.S. military psyops in Iraq." Ms. Kushlis' story provides an instructive lesson in how military PAOs stationed abroad subvert their more experienced civilian counterparts to undermine our diplomatic efforts in other countries.
I'm counting on Karen Hughes to exert her considerable power to put a stop to the Pentagon's paid PR plan. We already have enough problems in Iraq and elsewhere around the world to put up with such a cockamamie and downright un-American scheme because if we can't do public diplomacy the right (and ethical) way, it isn't worth doing.
Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, spent nearly 30 years in the public diplomacy business with the old U.S. Information Agency.