Journalistic Outrage: The Pentagon Paid a Disgraced PR Firm to Profile My Reporting
Editor's Note: Last week, news broke that the Pentagon had hired The Rendon Group, a controversial PR firm, to monitor the reporting of journalists embedded with the U.S. military, to assess whether they were giving "positive" coverage to its missions. Sparking controversy from journalism organizations, the Pentagon has just announced that it is canceling the contract with Rendon. In an e-mail sent over the weekend to Stars and Stripes, Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith said: "It was clear that the issue of Rendon's support to U.S. forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission."
Nir Rosen is one independent journalist who was profiled by The Rendon Group. In this account, he describes the documents produced by the PR firm, who warned the Pentagon that his reporting was "highly unfavorable to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan."
This past July I was embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan for a Rolling Stone Magazine article, with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. I was looking at American counterinsurgency and the declining security situation in Afghanistan, but first I had to get the military's approval to even embed with them.
The Rendon Group, controversial since it conducted propaganda on behalf of the Kuwaiti and American governments to help build American support for a war against Iraq in 1990, is the company to whom the U.S. military delegates the job of vetting reporters seeking to embed. Last week Stars and Stripes reported that the Pentagon is employing Rendon to profile reporters. I was shown a copy of the memorandum the Rendon group prepared about me. It is two and a half pages. A public affairs officer told me it was the most alarming report about a journalist that he had ever seen, and as a result I was grateful that Colonel Bill Hix was open minded enough to approve my embed despite the red flags raised about me.
"The purpose of this updated memo is to provide an assessment of freelance journalist Nir Rosen, and give a profile of his work, both through a summary of content and analysis of style, in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on embed mission in Afghanistan."
In the background section the memorandum describes some of my past work, experience and skills. It also warned that "in late 2008 Rosen 'embedded' with the Taliban in several areas of Afghanistan. A lengthy report on his embedded experience appeared in Rolling Stone and was highly unfavorable to international efforts in Afghanistan."
In a section called Coverage, the memorandum called my previous Rolling Stone story on the Taliban "controversial," explaining that "Rosen's report was highly unfavorable to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. The article portrayed the Taliban as a relatively coherent and effective fighting force that, in reality, controls the majority of the country. Rosen relayed Taliban propaganda and exaggerations as factual information, without significantly noting the questionability of such information. Rosen also stated that the Taliban perform many of the functions of the government, such as providing judicial and security services. Lastly, corruption and defection among the Afghan National Police was also highlighted, including in sentiment directly from Taliban militants. In one interview, Rosen stated that reporters who have embedded with U.S. troops typically produce the same story, and that his Taliban "embed" was an attempt to find an original story. Rosen referred to Taliban commanders and leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan as 'officials,' apparently putting them on equal footing with the Afghan government. The report contained quotations from unnamed Western and UN officials and academics that supported his conclusion that Afghanistan is largely a lost cause. No U.S. officials were quoted to provide commentary on the issues examined in his reporting…In one video, produced by Democracy Now!, Rosen stated his belief that the war is unwinnable and that the U.S. should withdraw…Rosen has stated his opposition to the Iraq war in numerous articles."
In a section called "Perspective, Style and Tone," the memorandum warned that "Rosen's coverage of Afghanistan has been mainly negative in tone, portraying the situation as hopeless and doomed to failure. Rosen's writing style is typically narrative and highly editorialized, profiling non-officials and his interaction with them. Rosen's personal opinions appear to frequently shape the tone and perspective of his reporting. In various interviews Rosen has made negative comments about the mission in Afghanistan, referring to Hamid Karzai as a weak and powerless puppet and the Afghan mission as suffering. Rosen's coverage of Iraq has grown increasingly critical of stability and military strategy, as he has stated that the only U.S. victory in Iraq will be a full withdrawal of troops."
That last part was definitely wrong, in that I have never stated that any U.S. victory was possible, whether the Americans withdrew or didn't, because I believe the concept has no meaning in the context of Iraq, and that no American interests were secured by that misbegotten war anyway.
In the final section called "Expectations for Embed" the memorandum warned that "based upon past reporting and the current challenging situation in Afghanistan, Rosen's reporting is likely to be highly unfavorable to the mission in Afghanistan. Rosen is likely to continue to characterize the Taliban as a well-armed and fairly effective military force that the U.S. is incapable of defeating ... Sentiment from Afghan civilians and possibly Taliban sympathizers and insurgents may be reported. Additionally, the difficulties facing individual U.S. soldiers on the front lines may be covered. It is also possible that Rosen may wish to circumvent security and administrative restrictions in order to pursue other story angles."
This last sentence was a key concern for an American military public affairs officer in Kabul, who told me that they were worried I would leave the embed to go hang out with the Taliban, as if I could just walk off of a base and knock on the Taliban's door.
It is no surprise that the military has a vetting process to determine which journalists are acceptable or appropriate. After all, the military's job is to implement a policy and achieve whatever mission they have been assigned. That mission has a propaganda element, or an information operations element, and it is also contingent upon the support of the American public and policy makers. That mission can be undermined by journalists.
My mission is to discover unknown truths despite obstacles put in my way and often in defiance of those in power. Often our two separate missions are in conflict. This is normal and good. There should be a tension between the media and the government. We are not on the same team. But it is troubling that the Department of Defense has to hire a private public relations firm to do the job of the military's public affairs officers for them.
This post originally appeared on the website of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.