Press on

After a six-month investigation, the Defense Department recently told the military that as long as they’re over there “freeing” Iraq and bringing about democracy, it’s probably not a good idea to pay Iraqi reporters to write U.S. propaganda and disguise it as news. Oh, and don’t plant articles in Iraqi newspapers without identifying the military as the source, either. Specifically, the review said that paying Iraqi journalists to write positive stories could damage American credibility, and it called for an end to it.

Last November, we learned that the military was paying the Lincoln Group tens of millions of dollars to write upbeat articles about the U.S. and get them into Iraqi newspapers without disclosing the source. Turns out they were also paying members of the Baghdad Press Club—Iraqi journalists paid to cover stories about Americans building new schools and the like—to do the same.

According to the New York Times, the practice was still going on as of last week.

Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., senior American commander in Iraq, says he’ll continue the practice unless more senior officials say to stop. Other military officials say it’s the only way to get the Iraqi public to listen to the U.S. military’s point of view. (Let’s see if we got that right—corruption, lies and deceit is the only way to get them to listen?)

The report recommended new guidelines to “determine when attribution may be appropriate.” It’s hard to imagine when it would not be appropriate.

Why is it wrong for the military to plant propaganda in U.S. newspapers but OK to do it in foreign countries, especially ones we’re supposedly opening to democracy?

That idea also operates on an old-world mentality. The news has been globalized. People read the New York Times and their local paper, as well as newspapers and Web blogs from around the world online. What’s to keep something being written in Iraq from being dispersed throughout the world media?

The issue is disturbing but not really surprising. After all, the Bush Administration’s reputation for press transparency is abysmal. It’s had stories distributed in the U.S. without identifying the federal government as the source, and they’ve paid American journalists to promote Bush administration policies. One incident involved hiring a syndicated commentator to promote “No Child Left Behind” policies to the African American community. Prepackaged, non-sourced videos promoting the federal drug policy and the new Medicare law were called “covert propaganda” by the Government Accounting Office.

Why do we care? It’s the difference between someone trying to show the truth and someone trying to accomplish a goal, no matter what it takes. It’s the difference between desiring a well-informed public and a public that just follows along. It’s about a government trying to control what and how the people they are supposed to represent should think. (And taxing them to do it).

When we begin to view government propaganda as acceptable news–after all, it can be “factual,” albeit one-sided and printed with a motive—we start to go into a very dark room falsely lit with pink fuzzy lights to keep us from being too scared.

The U.S. federal government must stop preaching democracy while soiling it at the same time. A free press is critical to a free country, no matter where that country is.