Will Pay For Good News

The Iraq news payola scandal reinforces how the United States is exporting hypocrisy -- not democracy.
Why are we Americans so outraged by the news that money can buy favorable press coverage? Surely it's not that many of us who haven't known for years that journalists in poor countries (and a few rich ones as well) are often venal.

I remember sitting with a journalist in El Salvador 20 years ago. He was interviewing me about an export promotion program I was managing for the U.S. aid agency. I answered his questions and gave him lots of documents describing the program and explaining why it was important to his country. He thanked me, but on his way out, he turned and said, "You know, my newspaper doesn't pay very well. If I could have a small fee, I could write a longer story and it would probably appear on the front page."

Twenty years later in Cairo, a journalist who came to talk with me about a globalization program I was involved in made a similar request. She called it "bakshish"--a tip, an expression of my appreciation. Needless to say, the aid agency didn't pay--and the stories got published anyway.

What outrages many of us is not that corruption is rampant in most of the so-called "developing nations." Corruption is a way of life in poor countries, and is certainly not limited to the press (try getting through Customs sometime).

No, there are three other good reasons why this latest episode ought to make us angry. First, as far as we know, the journalists didn't ask for money--the Pentagon offered it. And it did so as part of an organized and well-funded program, complete with its own contractor.

Second, it did so in secret. Absent the Los Angeles Times , which broke the story, chances are that none of us would ever have known that bribing journalists for 'good news' coverage of the Iraq war was yet another example of our tax dollars at work. Such transparency has been poison to the Bush administration.

Worst of all, the Defense Department's payola scheme was being carried out at the same time the State Department's exchange program was working to teach foreign journalists about the role and responsibility of a free press.

Why is this the worst aspect of this situation? Because it adds to the widespread perception of U.S. hypocrisy-- at a time when we are spending millions trying to "win hearts and minds" around the world. The task that President Bush gave his longtime confidante Karen Hughes--now undersecretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy--was arguably an impossible job in the first place. How does even the most competent diplomat go about convincing the world that Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe were aberrations, for which people were held accountable and sent to jail? How can Karen Hughes persuade anyone that America is a fair and compassionate society based on the rule of law when evidence keeps piling up that justice is meted out to everyone except the policymakers who are actually responsible?

Now, the Pentagon has hammered another nail into the coffin of Public Diplomacy. That should make us all angry. And, speaking of accountability, the Defense Department's press payola program was the idea of a real person. And that idea was reviewed and approved by other real people.

Who are they, and when will they be fired?

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" yesterday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley joined Iraqi journalists in the view that, if the DOD investigation supports the allegations, the Pentagon's latest caper was bad policy and should be stopped.

But based on past performance, we'll never know who was responsible for this brainstorm, and no one will ever be held accountable.

Not long ago, the media uncovered another neat little DOD program known as "Total Information Awareness." The program was an advanced form of "data mining," that would have effectively provided government officials immediate access to our personal information such as all of our communications (phone calls, e-mails and Web searches), financial records, purchases, prescriptions, school records, medical records and travel history. Under this program, our entire lives would be catalogued and available to government officials. In the ensuing furor, the program was shut down. But nobody was reprimanded, much less fired.

This was no aberration; it has been a consistent pattern in the Bush administration. No doubt the DOD's media payola program will soon be quietly shut down. But, we--the folks who financed it--have a right to know whose brilliant idea this was in the first place.
William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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