Sincerity, filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn once said, was the most important quality for an actor; once one learned to fake it, everything else came easy. Unfortunately, in real life credibility is a commodity that cannot withstand fakery once exposed. The question for the Pentagon in the past day is whether Army and/or Marine Corps brass have paid off Iraqi newspapers to carry articles written by American servicemen under false pretenses as news stories for the Iraqi public, trying to spin the war to American advantage:
As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the U.S. military is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
The articles, written by U.S. military “information operations” troops, are translated into Arabic and placed in Baghdad newspapers with the help of a defense contractor, according to U.S. military officials and documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Many of the articles are presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.
Though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as “Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism,” since the effort began this year.
The operation is designed to mask any connection with the U.S. military. The Pentagon has a contract with a small Washington-based firm called Lincoln Group, which helps translate and place the stories. The Lincoln Group’s Iraqi staff, or its subcontractors, sometimes pose as freelance reporters or advertising executives when they deliver the stories to Baghdad media outlets.
On one hand, it’s easy to dismiss this as a tempest in a teapot. What we’re talking about with this kind of effort is propaganda, and in a war on terrorism, this could be one of the least lethal battlegrounds we’ll face — but one of the most important. The terrorists certainly understand the way to play this game. They’ve faked news during the war to gain advantage, usually by spreading rumors about the treatment of people under our protection but also in posing as victors in battles that never took place. Once such incident apparently occurred today, when al-Qaeda used staged video to transform a single hit-and-run operation with a single RPG into some type of capture of Ramadi from several thousand American troops.
The problem with propaganda is that it only works for a short time, until it gets discovered. When that happens, the propagandist soon discovers that their ability to tell the truth has been hopelessly compromised. No one will believe them. Any number of examples will suffice, but the one with whom Americans will have the most familiarity is Baghdad Bob, the mouthpiece of Saddam who claimed that Americans were nowhere near Baghdad, that the Iraq Republican Guard was in the process of slaughtering them on the outskirts of the city, and that they would never be able to hold the city once it fell.
In order for our long-term relations with the Iraqi people to remain strong, we must not just be seen as another bull-tosser in a long line of bull-tossers; we need to maintain our credibility. That goes doubly true for the relationship between the administration and the American public, which has the American media as a big enough handicap without adding fake journalism as an additional reason for mistrust. If these charges are true — and it certainly seems that at least it’s partially true — the use of covertly-sourced journalism could do tremendous damage to the trust we need to keep the Iraqis on our side and to build domestic confidence in our prosecution of the war.
The White House has taken the right steps in this issue. They have started an investigation into the allegations, and they should. The Commander in Chief has to answer for the conduct of the troops and the brass, and Bush has to make sure that everyone has learned from the Armstrong Williams debacle. Anyone who participated in an effort such as the Times described in yesterday’s edition should have their career ended. It may not be as egregious as torture, murder, and videotaped beheading, but it destroys our moral authoritiy to lead and govern, and to report the facts. If anyone doubts this, just ask Leni Riefenstahl. Seven decades after shooting films at the behest of her beloved Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, she could never find work again as a documentarian. Credibility rarely survives when truth gets sold as a commodity, Goldwyn’s advice to the contrary.
UPDATE: A couple of notes based on reactions from readers. One comment on the post notes that the Allies often used propaganda to fool Germans on military manuevers, especially D-Day. Actually, the military used elaborate ruses for that purpose, spoofing German spies. I don’t recall American soldiers writing stories under the by-lines of British journalists and the Americans paying off editors of the dailies to run them as legitimate news articles. If someone has that kind of information on WWII, I’d love to see a link. If we did so with the Germans — well, of course they were our enemy, where in Iraq we’re trying to make the Iraqis our allies, a difficult enough proposition without allegedly corrupting their supposedly independent press. (It’s important to remember that these allegations haven’t been corroborated yet outside of the LA Times.)
One other reader takes me to task for my objection, saying that almost all news comes from PR releases that get rewritten by staff writers, and that there is no difference. Actually, there is a huge difference. CENTCOM puts out plenty of press releases, all of which would be available to Iraqi journalists to quote at their will for free. What the accusation here is that American soldiers write articles, and the PR firm then pays off the editors to run the stories under someone else’s by-line without acknowledging the source or the real writer. Imagine if the LA Times had run articles written by Bill Clinton’s staff under the by-line of Ronald Brownstein, or at the Washington Post under Dana Milbank or Walter Pincus. It would have become a huge political meltdown, and rightly so.