Pentagon Web Sites: Journalism or Propaganda?

Pentagon sites: Journalism or propaganda? (CNN)

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John says:

    I’m not quite sure that VOA fits your definition of propaganda. Those working for the organization would surely disagree.

    When VOA was part of the US Information Agency–before its hostile takeover by State–there were constant fights between VOA and State (and the Pentagon) over VOA content, particularly editorials. VOA tried to maintain that it was an objective news agency, along the once-vaunted lines of the BBS in a better era.

    State would continually complain that VOA carried far too many critics of USG policy instead of “getting with the program” of whomever happened to be in the White House. A general creep toward NPR-style content–light on facts, heavy on emotion–was also worrisome, again no matter which party the President was from.

    VOA has a specific mandate that requires them to cover all sides of an issue, by law. That’s a point often missed by incumbents and the appointed officials they bring with them.

  2. James Joyner says:

    John: I don’t know enough about VOA’s specific programming to debate the point. I guess I’d argue that, if they’re not a propaganda organ (in the most value neutral sense of the word) they should be shut down. We’ve got private concerns (CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.) that do objective news for worldwide dissemination. Why should they have to compete with a taxpayer-funded alternative if they’re in the same line of work?

  3. John says:

    There are many–including most at State and a majority in the White House–who would agree with you.

    I certainly lean in that direction, but…

    I think it incontrovertable that a medium that actually does tell both sides of the story, in a balanced manner, is valuable. It lets the message, rather than the spin, win adherents or not. It’s all on the merits of the argument.

    That condition existed during WWII (when VOA first started) and was maintained by both the BBC for a considerable period later. This put VOA in a clearly different category from RFE and RL, whose clear mission was to effect a change of opinion by reporting news not otherwise available to their audiences. VOA’s mission was a more low-key effort.

    None of the above media resorted to lies. RFE and RL certainly took a hard spin in their commentary, and VOA editorials were clearly identified as statements of USG policy. The ordinary news and other programming were more objective. Or were supposed to be so.

    I believe that over the years, particularly post-Vietnam, VOA became infected by NPR-itis. Not totally; there were and are many honorable reporters there doing a very honest job of journalism. But commentary, and story and source selection have gotten a little “wet”. There’s too much of an effort to “balance” a story when one side is inherently corrupt or evil.

    I won’t bore you with tales of the internicine battles within the various language services other than to say, “it’s really ugly”.