The War on Fog
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Whether it involves embellished stories of heroism meant to drum up patriotic sentiment (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman) – or sophisticated "psychological operations" to spread false information – the militarization of the media continues to undermine the credibility of both the military and the media.
As noted in a recent USA Today editorial: "Both forms of misinformation have their short-term appeal. Embellished stories of heroism generate favorable press when much of the news is bleak, and first impressions are the ones that stick. Psy-ops campaigns can give soldiers a tactical advantage or produce valuable intelligence."
But both do more harm than good – a lesson that should have been learned from the war in Vietnam, with its phony body counts and inflated assessments of how the war was being won.
The Vietnam experience, USA Today recalled: "gave the Pentagon a credibility gap that lasted nearly a generation." And credibility is crucial in such conflicts, which are as much wars of words and perceptions as of bombs and bullets.
Now the military is merging psy-ops and information operations with public affairs to create a seamless strategic communications "core competency."
While the Pentagon insists that deliberate falsehoods are rare, and initial battlefield accounts are often clouded by the "fog of war," its commitment to truthfulness is suspect at best. Meanwhile, the yawning credibility chasm it is creating for this generation's media may be best viewed as collateral damage.
A case in point: The Iraqi Media Network, and the contract to run it. Supposedly modeled on the BBC, the Iraqi Media Network includes a radio network, the Al-Iraqiya television network, which includes the news channel Al-Hurra, and the Al-Sabah newspaper.
The California-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) was awarded the original network contracts – totaling $108.2 million – in March 2003 by the Defense Contracting Command-Washington on behalf of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq.
Although SAIC, a U.S. defense contractor and technology research engineering firm, had virtually no prior media experience, the contracts were issued with no competitive bidding. Soon complaints arose that the network's content was so far from being fair and balanced that in reality it was propaganda.
A year ago, the Harris Corp, a Florida-based defense contractor and information technology company, took over after landing a $96 million contract to equip, rebuild, operate, program and manage the troubled media network.
The re-awarding of the contract to Harris was supposed to quell the complaints. Harris partnered with Middle Eastern media firms to run the media side of the network while it focused on infrastructure. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation programmed the radio and television networks, and Al Fawares, a Kuwaiti-Iraqi publishing and telecommunications company, operated the newspaper.
But problems persist, and criticism of the pro-United States content continues. In May, the staff of the newspaper walked out, and last month, the general director of the television network resigned after just six months on the job.
As the Orlando Business Journal recently reported, "Many media observers are wondering why Harris, which specializes in designing, manufacturing and installing communications equipment and infrastructure, was chosen by the federal government to run a media corporation in a foreign country... simple politics may be the reason."
Not surprisingly, Harris is a big Republican supporter. The Journal noted that during the 2004 election cycle, Harris donated $263,570 to GOP political action committees and candidates, and only $8,200 to Democratic candidates or causes.
Meanwhile, for fiscal 2003, Harris received $1.47 billion in total U.S. Government work – 70 percent of the company's annual revenue.
Choosing Harris to run a media network "doesn't make a lot of sense," according to Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute journalism school.
But company spokesman Tom Hausman insists Harris is the right company for the contract. "Harris is very experienced in large communications integration projects. We've done significant projects worldwide. We know broadcast equipment and how to integrate it," Hausman told the Business Journal.
And Sherrie Gossett of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog, told the paper the government's reliance on known defense contractors like Harris is no mistake.
"The primary goal of the U.S. government's media expansion in Iraq always has been a military and political one: to quell unrest, win the minds of the people and combat anti-American propaganda from other sources," Gossett said. "The fact that the U.S. started the job with a defense contractor ... and then chose Harris...underscores those priorities."
"If journalism is going to have any value, it is going to have to have credibility," counters McBride. "Right now, the U.S. government has zero credibility in Iraq, and anything it touches, including the media, is going to have a credibility problem."
"A free press is not created by sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure and government fiat," responds Gossett. "It's clear in the chaos of the current Iraq, a free press is not a priority."
What about in the chaos of the current United States of America?