Pentagon Rated Reporters' Work In Afghanistan

A private contractor has been providing the U.S. military in Afghanistan with reports on media coverage and on individual journalists.

Every day, commanders receive a briefing rating news stories as positive, negative or neutral, and profiles are often drawn up on journalists who ask to embed or to interview military commanders.

One of the journalist profiles obtained by NPR includes a statement of purpose that ends: "To gauge the expected sentiment of her coverage while on an embed mission in Afghanistan."

"Unfortunately, that particular sentence does create the wrong impression about how [the reports] are being used," says Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, spokeswoman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "All I can do is tell you that's not how they're used."

Positive, Negative, Neutral

Sidenstricker says the information is used as basic background on the journalists' stories and interests.

The reports are compiled by the Rendon Group. The company also writes press releases, speeches and talking points. It also rates stories for the military: positive, negative or neutral.

A recent "positive" story was headlined "Canadian Helps Afghans Create First National Park." A "negative" one: "Three NATO Troops Killed in Southern Afghanistan."

Sidenstrecker says she doesn't know why stories are categorized that way, adding she doesn't pay any attention to it.

"I can safely say it has never been the Department of Defense's intent to use any of that information to deny or grant access as a decision point in granting interviews or embeds," she says.

Access Restricted

Maj. Patrick Seiber, the press officer for the 101st Airborne Division, says that during his time in Afghanistan, he dealt with 62 different news agencies and 143 different reporters. He says he relied on the Rendon reports.

"Well, you got to have something, because we don't have enough public affairs guys that can go through and do it our own self," he says. "You got to know what you're dealing with. Our soldiers are at risk. Information is also a risk."

Seiber says he did pay some attention to negative ratings. If someone had many negative ratings, he says, he would want to know why.

"This didn't happen that often," he says. "Out of all those news agencies, I can only remember a couple of times there was somebody we didn't take ... because of their bent."

Both times, he says, the news agencies sent a different reporter.

Seiber doesn't know when the ratings started, but says Rendon has been doing the work for eight years.

In a statement, the Rendon Group says it is proud of the work it has done for the U.S. military.

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