The Pentagon continues to buy journalists

The Pentagon continues to buy journalists and violate basic precepts of American journalism, but does anyone care beyond a few dedicated defenders of the First Amendment? I don't think so.

I was in Seattle last month attending a University of Washington Journalism School reunion when I read that the Defense Department was in hot water again for buying journalists - supposedly objective "military analysts" this time around. A couple of years ago Pentagon PR people were paying Iraqi journalists to put out the "good news" and as far as I know, they still are. These practices fly in the face of everything we preach to American journalism students and foreign journalists, and undercut the efforts of State Department public diplomacy specialists to operate in an ethical and above-board way.

When I learned that the Pentagon was buying Iraqi journalists in late 2005, I immediately condemned the practice. "I'm counting on (then-Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy) Karen Hughes to ... put a stop to the Pentagon's paid PR plan," I wrote. "We already have enough problems in Iraq and elsewhere around the world to put up with such a cockamamie and downright un-American scheme because if we can't do public diplomacy the right (and ethical) way, it isn't worth doing." President Bush's good friend, Ms. Hughes, couldn't rein-in the Pentagon, and the public diplomacy picture is worse - and more unethical - today than it was then.

The latest revelation, published by the New York Times last month, is that "many of the 'military analysts' who explain wars and weapons programs to the public on CNN, NBC and other TV and radio networks are actually part of a Pentagon-orchestrated PR campaign. ... Hidden behind the appearance of objectivity is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage ..." In other words, as it prepared to invade Iraq five years ago, the Bush administration paid retired military officers to disseminate the best news analysis that money can buy.

And moreover, it was recently revealed that the Pentagon is establishing a global network of foreign-language Web sites and (still) hiring local journalists to gin-up good news stories that promote U.S. national interests. Of course I have nothing against promoting U.S. national interests. In fact, I spent nearly 30 years of my working life doing exactly that as a public diplomacy specialist for the old U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was abolished in 1999 by the Clinton administration and merged into the State Department - an egregious error, by the way, but that's another column.

Now don't get me wrong. The Defense Department does many things that are absolutely essential to the survival of our great democracy. The Pentagon is the best war-fighting machine on the face of the earth, and should remain so. The job of our armed forces is to fight and win our nation's wars before turning defeated former enemies over to trained civilians and diplomats who understand the local culture and language, required elements in any nation- or democracy-building exercise.

My Grenada Experience

One of the main problems in Iraq was that after our armed forces "won" the war, the Pentagon remained in control on the ground long after formal hostilities ceased. President Bush named a retired diplomat as the first chief of the Coalition Provisional Authority only to have him report to then-Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld rather than to ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired Army general who understood the postwar situation. And the rest is history. Iraq is still a mess and Job One for our next president is to find a graceful and honorable way out of that depressing quagmire.

I experienced some of those Pentagon control issues in Grenada while serving as the U.S. public affairs officer (PAO) on that Caribbean island during the October 1983 "rescue mission" (invasion). It was difficult to pry the public affairs portfolio away from our military colleagues because they controlled all of the assets on the island, including communications, transportation and a semi-clandestine radio station.

Military PR officers don't always realize that it's best to put a civilian face on military operations as soon as possible, so they tend to cling to the microphone long after their job is done. Even though we succeeded in taking over public affairs in Grenada, my USIA colleagues weren't so fortunate in Panama five years later, when the generals and admirals remained on TV for far too long, making that particular military operation appear to be more violent and aggressive than it really was.

Although the State Department has a trained cadre of public diplomacy specialists, it is virtually impossible for them to operate in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. But that shouldn't be an excuse for State to turn over its public diplomacy responsibilities to Defense. Most American diplomats understand that it's counter-productive to buy journalists and to operate phony "good news" Web sites. The best PR, or public diplomacy, is based on tried and true American values like honesty and accuracy, and that's what should guide us as we attempt to explain ourselves and our policies to foreign audiences.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a semi-retired journalist who spent nearly 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.


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