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Planting News in the Iraq Media

Allegations that the U.S. military paid Iraqi newspapers to print stories favorable to the U.S. effort has sparked criticism that the military may have subverted its democratic goal for Iraq. Two media experts with opposing views debate the implications.

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    Is the U.S. military crossing a line by planting good news stories in the Iraqi media? Such reports have been circulating for several days.

    This afternoon, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner met with military officials and said it's still unclear to him what media coverage the U.S. military in Iraq may have paid for and whether traditionally-accepted journalistic practices were violated.


    I'm concerned about any actions that could undermine the credibility of our great nation and, indeed, the profession of journalism.


    According to published reports, a Washington-based public relations company called The Lincoln Group was contracted by the military to translate articles written by Americans into Arabic, and then place them, often through payments, in Iraqi news organizations, both print and broadcast. These included articles and stories that did not disclose their American sponsorship.

    In Baghdad yesterday, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch had this to say:


    We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public, but everything we do is based on facts.


    Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sounded unsettled by the reports.


    Anything that would be detrimental to the proper functioning of a democracy in Iraq would worry me.


    Just this week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld touted the United States' ability to spread freedom of the press to Iraq.


    The country is — has a free media and they can –it's a relief valve. They have a hundred-plus papers.


    According to reports, one of the articles written, paid for and translated with the help of the U.S. military was entitled "Terrorists Attack Sunni Volunteers for the Army" and was published in a prominent Iraqi newspaper.


    I would be surprised if he got ten votes here!


    The Bush administration has faced past criticism for paying conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and others for stories in news outlets here at home.


    Good afternoon, everyone.


    Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration is concerned about the new reports about the military and is seeking more details.


    Now, two very different views of all this. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters retired in 1998 after a 22-year career. He's written several books about national security. His latest is "New Glory: Expanding America's Global Supremacy." John Schulz is dean of the College of Communication at Boston University. He was a combat fighter pilot in Vietnam and a professor at the National War College, and worked for 21 years as a war correspondent and senior news executive for the Voice of America. Welcome to both of you.

    Mr. Schulz, starting with you, what do you see is wrong with planting stories in the Iraqi media?


    I think simply, even in Political Science 101, we learn that there are three fundamental aspects of what makes a democracy. The first, of course, is a viable and effective press corps. The second, of course, is freedom of speech and other core freedoms and the third is equal justice under the law. And my problem here is — and a problem for many, I think — is that there is an irony.

    In the very process of attempting to either lead by example or actually instill a democracy, which is the main mission in Iraq as we understand it now, we're subverting democracy at the very core by subverting the legitimate process of journalism. And this leads to three problems: The first, of course, is the credibility of the journalists in Iraq. The second, of course, is that people there are going to see that journalists can be bought, and the journalists themselves and the editors are going to see well, when the Americans leave, I guess it's legitimate that you can be bought, and this is the way it goes. And those are major problems, indeed an extreme irony.

    And the last of the ironies is, of course, that dictatorships all over the world have often planted and paid for good press for themselves, not least of them Saddam Hussein, before we toppled him.


    All right. Col. Peters, you heard the list of particulars there. What is the case for doing this?


    The case is very straightforward. First of all, when a house is burning down, you put out the fire before you worry about the table settings. And although, obviously, in our democracy a free press is very, very important, Iraq is not yet a full-fledged democracy.

    Combating the insurgents and terrorists is much more important; in post-modern conflict — and, boy, I'll tell you, conflict has changed — the media sphere can be as important or even more important a battlefield than the physical battle space.


    So what happens in the media? What we're talking about is you think is as important as what goes on?


    You can win — winning on the ground, as in the first battle of Fallujah, and be defeated by the media.

    In Iraq, we may have a positive physical outcome on the ground and still lose because of global negative media reporting.

    But the crucial point here is Iraq doesn't have a free press as we know it yet. Iranians plant stories, Syrians, Baathists do, terrorists pressure journalists; political parties own papers.

    Well, the U.S. Army trying to place stories in the Philadelphia Enquirer or the Cleveland Plain Dealer, that would be wrong, but when we're at war, and we are certainly at war with insurgents and terrorists, you do what you legitimately can and this is legitimate because there's an ethics issue here, and I'd ask the professor to deign to respond to it.

    Look, if we, by planting these stories — and I wish we were doing it more competently — but if by planting stories we could limit Iraq and U.S. casualties – because the point is to persuade people to stop supporting terrorists, stop supporting the insurgents — if these stories helped us save lives, isn't that ethical?

    Is it more ethical to kill people than to change their minds?


    All right. Well, John Schulz, you raised one ethical question, and now you've had another one thrown back at you. Answer Col. Peters.


    Certainly, I'll be happy to. We're out there expending blood and treasure and our young people are fighting and in some cases dying for certain principles and for a mission, and we're subverting that very mission.

    And, ethically speaking, I, first of all, wouldn't want the United States to be added to the list of those who are, as the colonel has pointed out, listed as those who are buying and planting stories.

    Adding the United States to that list simply is not the means justifying the end. And, indeed, when we do get to with where the means justify the end, it's pretty hard to tell the bad guys without a program. But in a larger sense, the ethics that are involved in this process so clearly violate the basic tenets of a functioning democracy as to not need much further answer that that.


    Go ahead.


    We do not yet have a functioning democracy in Iraq, and, you know, we cannot abandon the media battlefield to our enemies and say, "Oh, well, it's just wrong, and we're going to have good table manners," and leave.

    This is a war. People are indeed dying, and we need to use every — every rational weapon in our arsenal. My point is simply that in postmodern conflict, if you lose the media battle, you lose.


    Let me ask you something, Col. Peters, about where you would draw the line because it sounds like first of all you are saying the rules are different in war, but where do you draw the line?

    Now, so far the military is saying they are only using and planting factual stories. For example, would it be all right to plant false stories?


    Well, in wartime we've done that. We've done that in World War II. We did it during the Cold War. I disagree with the dean. There are times in real life, outside of Georgetown or Boston when the ends do justify the means, and we're not going to go to Hoboken in a hand basket just because we did everything we could to turn people instead of killing them.


    So Dean Schulz, how would you have the military make its case in the environment that Col. Peters is describing where everybody is throwing out information in the Iraqi media world?


    Well, I think first of all and terribly important here, there's a long-term and long-standing principle that will truth will out, and it involves a process of trusting the media, the news media.

    I mean, if the colonel is correct, and certainly he is, that there isn't a free and properly functioning and effective media, journalistic community in Iraq right now — and God knows they haven't had a chance to be one in all the years under Saddam Hussein — how are they going to get there from here if we are one of the ones subverting them, and indeed have the most influence and the most money to continue to corrupt a system that was badly corrupted before?

    Rather, I would argue, we should be leading by example in the opposite direction and showing how it is done, which begins with trusting the news media.

    And separately, I think what the colonel points out about what we're fighting and dying for out there, and in a war is what – well, it's to install an effective and viable democracy.

    You can't get there from here without a free, viable, effective, and credible news media. It loses all its credibility now and for the future when you know that these people are bought.


    That's not true. First of all–


    It is true.


    — in the Middle East the truth does not always come out. Al-Jazeera, how do we combat it? Shall we bomb it or is it better to fight it in the media sphere?

    You know, the free press is certainly critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy. But first, let's get democracy off the training wheels, and my point is you do things in order. You can't do everything at once.

    First, defeat the terrorists and insurgents. Let the people vote because you can, in fact, have a democracy without a perfect press, but you will never have a free press without a rule of law of democracy.


    Let me ask you both, we just have a minute and I just want to give you one more chance here of what do you want to see happen next?

    There are a lot of things about this we still don't know, how high up it goes in the chain of ordering this stuff to be done. But what needs to happen next, Col. Peters?


    Well, again, I believe that working in the media sphere is fine, but you have got to do it competently, and I'm concerned that we're just not good enough – you know, as evidenced by Karen Hughes' disastrous visit to the Middle East. We have got to get much more sophisticated at cultural understanding, and also I want to know about the Lincoln Group, the carpet-bagging contractors who planted these stories.

    I would have rather have things done by the military who tend to act ethically than by pirates.


    Okay. And, John Schulz, what would you like to see happen next?


    I would like for serious people, such as Pete Pace, my old colleague at the War College, whom I trust and I think said the right things, to think immediately about abandoning and closing out that program.

    I think that also terribly importantly there needs to be an agonizing reappraisal of what they mean about trusting the news media and whether soldiers and plants and public relation firms can function in the place of effective news media; I don't think so.


    All right. John Schulz, Ralph Peters, thank you both very much.

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