War On Bad Press
By Emad Mekay
22 February, 2006
Inter Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (IPS) - Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has signaled that he plans to intensify a campaign to influence global media coverage of the United States, a move that is likely to heighten the debate over press freedom and propaganda-free reporting.
Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Rumsfeld said that Washington will launch a new drive to spread and defend U.S. views, especially in the so-called war on terror.
He cited the Cold War-era initiatives of the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, widely viewed outside the United States as sophisticated propaganda outlets, as a model for the new offensive.
If similar efforts over the past five years are any example, the campaign is likely to take place in two main areas -- the U.S. media and the press in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where Washington sees its strategic influence as pivotal.
On Tuesday, Rumsfeld also said that the Pentagon is "reviewing" its practice of paying to plant good news stories in the Iraqi news media, contradicting a previous assertion that the controversial propaganda programme had been halted.
Critics here say the new media blitz joins a long list of decisions by the George W. Bush administration, such as ordering the National Security Agency to spy on U.S. citizens without warrants, monitoring library records, and compiling databases on U.S. citizens who disagree with the administration's policies, that are leading the country down an authoritarian path -- ironically, one that is not far from those Middle Eastern regimes that have long clamped down on freedom of expression and independent journalism.
And they note that the U.S. mainstream media already tends towards a conservative interpretation of events, with scant regard for opposing views.
According to a study released this month by the U.S.-based media organisation Media Matters for America, conservative voices have considerably outnumbered liberal voices for the past nine years on the Sunday morning television news shows, considered among the pinnacles of U.S. journalism.
The report analysed the content of influential shows such as NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, and ABC's This Week. It classified each of the nearly 7,000 guests who appeared during the 1997-2005 period as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral.
It found that guests opposing the Bush administration's policies, during both terms, were given only enough space to maintain a veneer of fairness and accuracy. Congressional opponents of the Iraq war, for example, were mostly missing from the Sunday shows, particularly during the period just before the war began in March 2003.
"If conservative dominance in this major arena of (U.S.) public opinion-making continues as it has in the past nine years, it may have serious consequences for future policy debates and elections," said David Brock, president of the Washington-based NGO Media Matters for America.
"This study should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks they are seeing balanced discourse on Sunday mornings -- and to those responsible for producing this imbalanced programming," he said.
Rumsfeld's plan would almost certainly seek to bolster such sympathetic reporting. In his speech, the U.S. military chief used war terminology to refer to the media.
He said that "some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms -- in places like New York, London, Cairo, and elsewhere."
According to Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a magazine put out by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), "They see the mutilation of information that reaches the public as a key part of their war strategy, and I think that is a very dangerous way for the military to be looking at their job in a democracy."
"When people talk about the ‘home front' they do not realise what sinister implications that has. The public is seen as another front that the military is fighting out."
Rumsfeld recommended that the media be part of every move in the so-called war on terror, including an increase in Internet operations, the establishment of 24-hour press operations centres, and training military personnel in other channels of communication.
He said the government would work to hire more media experts from the private sector and that there will be less emphasis on the print press.
The State Department, under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is also stepping up its propaganda efforts. Last week, Rice asked for 74 million dollars to expand broadcasting and internet campaigns in Iran, as well as to promote student exchanges, in order to destabilise the regime there.
But to many independent media analysts, the Bush administration has too often confused propaganda with facts and information.
"I think that in the Pentagon world view, facts become instrumentalised," Naureckas said. "The point of putting out information is to achieve your military objectives. It's not to serve truth in some kind of abstract sense. And once you start looking at it this way, the difference between a true statement and false statement really becomes very little."
The Bush administration has had some success in influencing the media at home in the United States, a country with generally sophisticated and discerning media operations.
Last week, U.S. lawmaker Henry Waxman and other senior Democratic leaders released a new study by the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional oversight body, which found that the Bush administration spent a whopping 1.6 billion dollars in public relations and media over the last two and a half years to sway public opinion.
"The government is spending over a billion dollars per year on PR and advertising," said Congressman Waxman. "Careful oversight of this spending is essential given the track record of the Bush administration, which has used taxpayer dollars to fund covert propaganda within the United States."
The opposition Democrats had asked the GAO to conduct that study after evidence emerged last year that the Bush administration had commissioned "covert propaganda" from public relations firms that pushed video news releases that appeared to regular viewers as independent newscasts.
The report found that the administration's public relations and advertising contracts spanned a wide range of issues, including message development presenting "the Army's strategic perspective in the Global War on Terrorism".
The study found that the Pentagon spent the most on media contracts, with contracts worth 1.1 billion dollars. And all that money was before the new Rumsfeld plan.
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.