The Mix

Spreading lies or revealing the truth?

A recent panel with American soldiers back from the frontline raises the question: Is planting news stories part of the battle?
Information vs. Propaganda

I was first introduced to the grey area between propaganda and selective truth when I visited Havana, Cuba. What struck me during my first two weeks was how safe it seemed to wander around the city at any time of night. And, indeed, according to the state's press apparatus, the Granma, there really wasn't anything in the way of crime. Good news for Cubans, great news for the tourism industry, which keeps the country afloat. By the end of the month, however, I had had been mugged, leading me to start asking my friends some questions: so what of this crime thing? I asked. The agreement was that, though crime was occurring, it was not being reported in the press. The contention was whether or not the underreporting (or non-reporting, as it may be) had an influence on the relatively low level of crime that occurred.

I find myself revisiting a similar question in light of the U.S. "planting" of pro-American stories in Iraqi press outlets. It was revealed last week that a Washington sub-contractor, the Lincoln Group, has been paid to write and translate news pieces for Iraq's burgeoning free press -- effectively emphasizing U.S. military successes. So, is it propaganda, or an attempt to balance the scales, and help foment an environment for success?

Well, according to Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John Warner, (R.-Va.) planting stories without disclosing sources is wrong, but "the disinformation that's going on in that country is really affecting the effectiveness of what we're achieving, and we have no recourse but to try and do some rebuttal information." The NY Times notes, "There are about 200 Iraqi-owned newspapers and 15 to 17 Iraqi-owned television stations. Many, though, are affiliated with political parties, and are fiercely partisan, with fixed pro- or anti-American stances, and some publish rumors, half-truths and outright lies."

This past week, I attended a California Commonwealth Club panel of American soldiers who had come back from Iraq. In the course of the discussion with Marine Corps Major Michael Samarov, Marine Lance Corporal Sam Reyes, N.G. Lieutenant Colonel Micahel Wells, and N.G. Staff Sergeant Diana Morrison, there were two issues that the soldiers talked about quite a bit. The first was how, though it hadn't originally been part of their mission, they were doing on-the-ground democracy-building. The second issue was how negative press both in Iraq and internationally, brought down morale and made their lives that much harder. Implicit in these two issues was a significant tension that came to the fore when Marine Corps Major Michael Samarov noted that when he and his team were in Karballah, they had to figure out how to help "democratize" the area.

He recalled the event with some humor, noting that they decided "free press was pretty important." After he and his fellow marines put their heads together, it was decided that there should be more than one paper, to represent different views. They went about providing tools and training to two different groups of Iraqis. Some weeks into it, Samarov noted that one of the Iraqis they had trained came into his office, furious that they had given the same training and resources to another group. Samarov explained to him that this was the point of free press.

"But he thinks you're bad and he wants you to go home," Samarov recalled the man saying in reference to those leading the other paper. After an extended conversation, Samarov said the man stood up, shook his hand and said, "So, this is democracy?" And when Samarov nodded, the man noted, "This is very dangerous. I'm not sure we're ready, but we'll try."

Samarov went on to explicitly state that many Iraqis new to the concept of free press are "still learning how to be journalists" insisting that, "Iraq is different. It's not about truth. It's about the position of this tribe, the position of that family. This isn't like the international media. It's not the same." This was seconded by N.G. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Wells who noted, "warfare is a complex activity. You have to get your side of the story out there."

It wasn't just the media within Iraq that the soldiers noted was biased. In fact, there was much more being said about the U.S. and international press. N.G. Staff Sergeant Diana Morrison, an outspoken critic against the war, described how, on the rare occasions that she did have the chance to watch the news, it was CNN that really brought morale down. "I found it to be very misrepresentative of what was going on. It was like only watching the crime reports of all the cities all over the country," she said.

When I asked about the tension between this concept of free press in light of the recent news of U.S.-planted stories, and whether he thought it was necessary, Major Samarov recalled what he learned from working with Anthony Shadid, an embedded reporter from the Washington Post:"Dog bites man, that's not a story; Man bites dog, that's a story." Shadid had come to Karballah when it was so peaceful, said Samarov, "that we were playing soccer with the Iraqis." Samarov read Shadid's original piece, and then saw what the Washington Post chose to publish. "What was published," said Samarov, "was like a footnote." Good news in war, apparently, just isn't news.

The soldiers noted that when the embedded journalism ended, all bets were off, and the stories lost the perspective they had before. When reporters were embedded, Samarov noted, there was alignment between getting the facts right, and keeping the unit they were working with safe. And, when the reporters spent more time with the units, they saw the good and bad -- both attacks from insurgents as well as the soccer games with the locals.

The press has made much of the planting of the stories, and the soldiers that spoke to the San Francisco community had quite a bit to say about the impacts of media. No matter where you stand on the issue, it is evident that the media coverage of Iraq is critical to public opinion -- and to soldiers on the ground -- both within Iraq, and abroad.

The press has been quick to chastise the administration for the Lincoln Group's work. The Nation blog quipped, "Now we learn that while U.S. troops had defective bulletproof vests, U.S. taxpayer money was being used to help Lincoln pitch pop culture ideas as a way to win hearts and minds in the Middle East." But it seems odd that press outlets are so quick to underestimate how important press coverage of the war is. Information, and who controls it during wartime has always been utilized as a vital weapon, and planting pro-American information is nothing new.

Alexander Cockburn, also of the Nation, notes, "As with much else in the Bush era, the novelty lies in the openness with which these strategies have been conducted. Regarding the strategies themselves, there's nothing fundamentally new…in terms of paid coverage." Cockburn notes that CIA has had journalists on its payroll for years in the past, and that it is doubtful that the practice has stopped.

It's been going on for a long time, but now it's getting some attention. So let's thank the Bush administration for being so un-stealthy in its strategies. Paying for news reports to be published without appropriate attribution is just unacceptable. And that is where the Bush administration got it all wrong by allowing the Lincoln group to speciously publish these stories under the guise of Iraqi journalists. But now, perhaps we can go beyond chastisement of the Lincoln group and the administration and explore the question of what we will and will not allow when it comes to press coverage of a war.

It's a difficult question. In a war that seems to be getting negatively biased coverage, what do you do to balance the scales -- especially when the balance influences the safety and stability of a war environment? Is the mainstream press responsible for covering the positive as well as the negative events in Iraq? Should we go back to embedding reporters with soldiers in Iraq? Is the press, as the American soldiers implied, misrepresenting what is going on Iraq? The Bush administration's legitimacy has long been at stake -- that's hardly news. But implicit in what has been revealed are some deeper questions regarding how we choose to cover this war and what the repercussions are.
Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an editorial intern at AlterNet.