Another mighty blow for a free press

April 3, 2006

The Bush administration has recovered from its initial qualms over secretly paying to plant pro-U.S. stories in the fledgling Iraqi press. An internal Pentagon review has now concluded that those efforts, part of a wider propaganda push using a U.S. outfit called the Lincoln Group and costing as much as $100 million over five years, don’t violate law or policy.

That conclusion is a turnabout. At first, after the Los Angeles Times exposed the program in December, the administration had a brief bout with principle. After all, the news was disturbing. Starting in early 2005 hundreds of stories about progress made by Iraqi troops, U.S. rebuilding successes and the like had been written by U.S. hirelings and planted in Iraqi media. The Times reported: “The Lincoln Group’s Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.” U.S. operatives even bought an Iraqi newspaper and took control of a radio station and used them to pitch pro-U.S. messages, without identifying the Pentagon as paymaster.

In response to the disclosures, White House spokespeople said they were “very concerned.” Asked on Fox News whether President Bush thought the program “inconsistent” with the administration’s supposed support of free media, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley replied: “Yes. It’s very troubling. And if it turns out to be true, I think you’ll find that activity stopped.” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ordered a formal review and said: “The worst thing you can have is people somehow feeling they’ve been snookered.”

Well, never mind. Evidently snookering people isn’t so bad thing after all. Now, the reasoning goes, since the stories themselves were true — the Pentagon hasn’t actually made them available, but we know our government wouldn’t ever lie — what’s the harm in greasing some palms to get them into print?

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld declared in a newspaper column that the whole endeavor was little more than Yankee ingenuity, a clever use of  “nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people.”

Warming to his theme, in an extraordinary speech in February to the Council of Foreign Relations, Rumsfeld implied we’d be remiss if we didn’t pay off foreign media. The United States is being outplayed in the PR game, he said, and he assailed critics of his payola program:  “The conclusion to be drawn logically … is that there is no tolerance for innovation, much less for human error, that could conceivably be seized upon by a press that seems to demand perfection from the government, but does not apply the same standard to the enemy, or even sometimes to themselves.”

So the secretary imagines that bribery is some fresh new innovation? He apparently missed the news that his colleagues at the departments of education and agriculture have been paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that administration policies are handled sympathetically by media right here at home.

True, the Iraqi payola has greater poignancy. Theirs is a media system that is only now breaking free from decades of dictatorial controls. The program’s effectiveness hinges on corrupting a press whose honesty, independence and professionalism should be principal components of democratization, which, you’ll recall, is this week’s rationale for the war.

And now? The most ridiculous consequence of all this is that an Iraqi editor would now have to be insane to offer up a story or a column sympathetic to the U.S. line. The program thoroughly discredits independent commentators ¾ who might otherwise have supported U.S. policy objectives on their own ¾ by creating the powerful presumption that they’re nothing more than abject foreign stooges.

The entire affair has pretty much fallen off the table of U.S. concerns. Under today’s rules of political accountability, once the Pentagon issues a report clearing itself of wrongdoing, game over. There will be no congressional hearings ¾ holding them would be up to the majority party ¾ and without hearings, there will be little pressure, little outrage.

Having paid off journalists for favorable columns and secretly financed bogus news releases supporting administration policies at home, we have the U.S. government using tax dollars to hobble precisely the independent expression that our troops are supposed to be fighting to make possible abroad.

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