In a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign
Wars, U.S. Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that, "The enemy is so much better
at communicating. I wish we were better at countering that because the constant
drumbeat of things they say – all of which are not true – is harmful."
Later, during a question-and-answer session at Fallon Naval Air Station in
Nevada, Rumsfeld complained about terrorist groups that have "media committees"
that "manipulate the media."
"What bothers me the most is how clever the enemy is," he said. "They
are actively manipulating the media in this country. … They can lie with
During the three-plus years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, the George W. Bush
administration has repeatedly criticized the media for reporting only the "bad"
news from Iraq. President Bush has frequently maintained that the consequences
of the media's preoccupation with negative stories demoralizes the troops on
the ground and undercuts support for the war at home.
There were few complaints from the administration at the beginning of the war
when an embedded and compliant media filed mostly positive reports.
In their new book titled The
Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin,
2006), which goes on sale Thursday, co-authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
assert that television reporters "actually underplayed rather than overplayed
the negative" in their reporting from Iraq, while "newspaper coverage
during the subsequent occupation has also been sanitized."
Stauber and Rampton cite a study by researchers at George Washington University
that analyzed 1,820 stories on five U.S. television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC,
CNN, and Fox News, as well as the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, and found
that "all of the American media largely shied away from showing visuals
of coalition, Iraqi military, or civilian casualties. Despite advanced technologies
offering reporters the chance to transmit the reality of war in real time, reporters
chose instead to present a largely bloodless conflict to viewers even when they
did broadcast during firefights."
Print journalists didn't perform much better. A May 2005 review by Los Angeles
Times writer James Rainey of the coverage of a six-month period – when
559 U.S. and Western allies died in Iraq – by six major U.S. newspapers
and two popular newsmagazines found that "readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Los Angeles Times, New York Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
and Washington Post did not see a single picture of a dead serviceman."
"Rumsfeld's complaints are an interesting twist of the truth since the
reality is that the United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars
on media campaigns that have been spectacularly ineffective," Rampton told
IPS in a telephone interview. "That the enemy has been more effective in
communicating its message to the world is not so much a reflection of their
media savvy as it is on the ineffective message of the United States."
"You can't expect a better messaging strategy to compensate for the fact
that the underlining policy is based on falsehoods and deliberate deception,"
As the occupation of Iraq proved unmanageable and the total number of dead
and wounded U.S. military personnel mounted, stories about the revamping of
schoolhouses and the building of soccer fields were given a back seat by the
With things continuing to spiral out of control in Iraq, the Bush administration
has once again decided that it's a public relations problem; a question of propaganda,
not policy. Around the same time that Rumsfeld was on the road railing about
antiwar appeasers and confused critics that were enabling terrorism, and how
much better the terrorists were in handling the media, the Washington
reported that "U.S. military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid
a two-year, 20-million-dollar public relations contract that calls for extensive
monitoring of U.S. and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive
coverage of news from Iraq."
According to the Post's Walter Pincus, the "contract calls for
assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part
of a program to provide 'public relations products' that would improve coverage
of the military command's performance, according to a statement of work attached
to the proposal."
Pincus pointed out that the proposal "calls in part for extensive monitoring
and analysis of Iraqi, Middle Eastern, and American media, [and] is designed
to help the coalition forces understand 'the communications environment.' Its
goal is to 'develop communication strategies and tactics, identify opportunities,
and execute events … to effectively communicate Iraqi government and coalition's
goals, and build support among our strategic audiences in achieving these goals,'"
according to a statement publicly available through the FBO
Daily Web site.
"From what I've seen, the thing about this proposal that most concerns
me is the component calling for the monitoring of the media, especially when
journalists will be rated as to how favorable they are toward U.S. policy objectives,"
Rampton pointed out.
"Monitoring journalists and maintaining a database of their stories raises
a number of serious questions: Who knows where that database will wind up in
two years or five years from now? What kind of retribution might be exacted
against those reporters whose work is seen as unfavorable to U.S. policy?"
The administration's new maneuver appears to be déjà vu all over
again. As early as September 2003, less than six months after the invasion of
Iraq, it determined that the best way to sell its policy was to make its highest
ranking officials – including the president – available for safe media
President Bush gave the Fox News Channel a 30-minute interview and a 20-minute
on-camera tour of the White House while then-National Security Adviser and current
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on ABC's Nightline and gave
interviews to Fox television's Brit Hume and Bill O'Reilly and to conservative
radio talk show host Sean Hannity.
A later campaign was aimed at sidestepping the mainstream media entirely by
dispatching administration spokespersons to talk only to local news outlets.
Another campaign had the administration hiring the Lincoln Group, a high-powered
public relations firm, to plant positive stories in the Iraqi news media and
to pay friendly Iraqi journalists monthly stipends.
"In the first chapter of The Best War Ever, we discuss the failures
of recent attempts by the U.S. to plant stories in the Iraq media," Rampton
noted. "You can't throw money at a messaging problem and expect to be effective
when the people you are trying to persuade are deeply outraged at what you are
Over the course of the war and occupation of Iraq, even the parameters of what
constitutes "good" news has changed dramatically. Early on, the "good"
news consisted of reports on the rebuilding of schools and hospitals, the delivery
of new fire trucks to a small town, or the opening of soccer field for Iraqi
These days, the "good" news has more to do with whether Iraqi troops
have the stuff necessary to militarily confront sectarian militias, whether
attacks by insurgents have dropped from 50 a day to 25, whether daily Iraqi
civilian deaths are in the dozens instead of the hundreds, and whether the situation
has descended into a full-blown civil war or whether a civil war is still in
To paraphrase bluesman Albert King's song "Born Under a Bad Sign,"
"If it wasn't for bad news, there would be no news at all."
(Inter Press Service)