Saturday, December 03, 2005

Once More Unto the Information Battlespace

The Washington Post today reports on the U.S. military admission that it paid to have propaganda pieces appear in Iraqi media, without revealing their source. This is bad and dumb in more than just the obvious ways.

Here's how the Post summarized the issue:

In a statement, the command said the program included efforts, "customary in Iraq," to purchase advertising and place clearly labeled opinion pieces in Iraqi newspapers. But the statement suggested that the "information operations" program may have veered into a gray area where government contractors paid to have articles placed in Iraqi newspapers without explaining that the material came from the U.S. military and that Iraqi journalists were paid to write positive accounts.

"Serious allegations have been raised that suggest the process may be functioning in a manner different than is intended or appropriate," the statement said. Commanders are "reviewing these allegations and will investigate any improprieties," it said.
The Post's implication and interpretation (which I'm guessing is at least not contradicted by whatever background briefings they were given) is that the MNF-Iraq statement says that paying to place articles in Iraqi newspapers without explaining the source, and paying Iraqi journalists to write positive accounts are operational developments "in a manner different than is intended or appropriate" and that it is these two allegations that will be investigated as possible "improprieties."

But that's not what the actual MNF-Iraq news release says. Here's the relevant excerpt:

As part of our operations, we have offered articles for publication to Iraqi newspapers, and in some cases articles have been accepted and published as a function of buying advertising and opinion/editorial space, as is customary in Iraq. Third parties have been employed in an effort to mitigate the risk to publishers. The procedures for doing so undergo policy and legal review to ensure compliance with the law and regulations.

Serious allegations have been raised that suggest the process may be functioning in a manner different than is intended or appropriate.
In other words, the MNF-Iraq release defends precisely the policies the Post says MNF-Iraq will be investigating. "Buying...opinion/editorial space" is "customary." Paying a middleman in order to conceal the material's source (from at least its readers and possibly even from its publishers) is "an effort to mitigate the risk to publishers [through]...procedures...[that] undergo policy and legal review to ensure compliance with the law and regulations."

What's unclear is which allegations remain that the process might be "different than is intended or appropriate" -- given that the allegations were made about a process that MNF-Iraq is now claiming were "customary," and in "compliance with the law and regulations"!

The release defends the military's practice of subverting the free marketplace of ideas, and duping Iraqi readers, with the following explanations:

The information battlespace in Iraq is contested at all times and is filled with misinformation and propaganda by an enemy intent on discrediting the Iraqi government and the Coalition...

Information Operations is an essential tool for commanders to ensure the Iraqi population has current, truthful and reliable information...

Information operations are powerful and essential to military success...As with all combat operations, Coalition Forces have a number of programs designed for providing factual information to the local population.
Even assuming the reasoning is well-intentioned, it betrays a staggering lack of understanding about the basics of journalism, propaganda and nation-building. If the Pentagon were truly interested in nurturing the kind of journalism a successful representative democracy needs, it would protect threatened journalism not with deceit but with protection.

But the bigger point is that Iraqis have to learn not to trust their journalists, but how to assess their journalists. The issue is not as simple as getting the Pentagon's good news out there. The issue is that Iraqis have to learn how to practice and consume good, independent journalism, as is far from "customary" in Iraq.

By failing to provide Iraqis the truth about the source of information, the military tacitly endorsed the notion that people don't, or even shouldn't, assess journalism with a critical eye that weighs journalists against their rivals and their track records and possible personal or corporate biases. In other words, they've acted as if consuming journalism ought to be a passive endeavor. And they've given those disinclined to participate in that endeavor all the more reason to throw up their hands, give up the effort and proclaim, "it's all lies anyway." They've undermined not just American credibility, but far more importantly, the credibility of an emerging journalistic system in a newborn nation. And that, I fear, will contribute in Iraq to a trend in America that, with President Bush's support, has already had devastating consequences: The rejection of the notion of objective truth.

UPDATE: A former regular guest on my old show, Morning Sedition, was instrumental in breaking this story, and has his own take on some of the themes I've touched on, in an interview he gave to Anthony Lappe at


Sunshine Jim said...

eya bud, came for your screed on morning sedition and stayed to read the rest. peeps making the comments an incredible crew. amazing versatility and intellect.

read a while back that the white house (now looking like the dragged through the mud of iniquity house)
had set aside 70 million for these media games. maks me think most of these idiot "my president is god" journalists are in it mainly for the bucks and the "stooge" benefits.

would go a long way to explaining the suspension of thought and disregard of evidence they exhibit eh?
good luck with the site! ; )

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