Pentagon Web Sites: Journalism or Propaganda?
The U.S. Department of Defense plans to add more sites on the Internet to provide information to a global audience — but critics question whether the Pentagon is violating President Bush’s pledge not to pay journalists to promote his policies. The Defense Department runs two Web sites overseas, one aimed at people in the Balkan region in Europe, the other for the Maghreb area of North Africa. It is preparing another site, even as the Pentagon inspector general investigates whether the sites are appropriate.
The Web sites carry stories on subjects such as politics, sports and entertainment. The sites are run by U.S. military troops trained in “information warfare,” a specialty that can include battlefield deception. Pentagon officials say the goal is to counter “misinformation” about the United States in overseas media. At first glance, the Web pages appear to be independent news sites. To find out who is actually behind the content, a visitor would have to click on a small link — at the bottom of the page — to a disclaimer, which says, in part, that the site is “sponsored by” the U.S. Department of Defense. “There is an element of deception,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The problem,” he said, is that it looks like a news site unless a visitor looks at the disclaimer, which is “sort of oblique.”
The Pentagon maintains that the information on the sites is true and accurate. But in a recent memo, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz insisted that the Web site contractor should only hire journalists who “will not reflect discredit on the U.S. government.” The Defense Department has hired more than 50 freelance writers for the sites. Some senior military officers have told CNN the Web sites may clash with President Bush’s recent statements. “We will not be paying commentators to advance our agenda,” Bush told reporters on January 26. “Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet.” (Full story) Bush made those comments after it came to light that the administration had paid several commentators to support U.S. policies in the U.S. media.
Are these sites journalism or propaganda? Why, propaganda, of course. Is Voice of America journalism? Radio Free Europe? Radio Marti? Radio Liberty? Radio Free Iraq? These organs are designed to provide our side of the story to a foreign audience. They’re not “objective” in the sense that they’re neutral and let the chips fall where they may.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they’re filled with disinformation; they’re not. But their mission is to counter anti-American propaganda and other distortions international audiences get from their own state-controlled media and dictatorial governments. To the extent that we want to get at “root causes” and “win hearts and minds,” such programs are absolutely vital.
While it’s true that these institutions violate the literal meaning of Bush’s recent proclamation, they obviously don’t violate its spirit. The president was talking in the context of paying American journalists and commentators to surreptitiously advance the administration position to a domestic audience. Doing this undermines the public’s confidence in both our government and our media, plus it’s a rather obvious misuse of taxpayer money. Conversely, paying government employees to report the news, filtered through the lens of our foreign policy objectives and the cultural precepts of the intended audience, to subjects of authoritarian regimes abroad is an incredibly wise investment and in no way counter to the spirit of our Constitution.
Update (0928): A tangentially related post by Matthew Levitt helps emphasize the need for engaging in the propaganda battle:
Hamas and [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] have recently been at odds, however, clashing over dominance of what a Hamas activist described as the “media Jihad.” Hamas Shura Council member Fathi Hamad, in charge of the group’s communications system in Gaza, complained: “We outnumber them, we have many more mosques, and much more commitment, but they are ahead of us in the satellite TV stations, and their websites are much bigger than the group itself,” Hamad claimed.
Our enemies understand.