Is Pentagon Trying To Shape War Coverage?

The Defense Department has ordered profiles of reporters writing about Afghanistan and graded their coverage as "positive," "negative" or "neutral," according to the independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes. The staffer leading the paper's investigation, Charlie Reed, talks with Guy Raz.

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GUY RAZ, host:

The Pentagon has been secretly profiling reporters who cover the military. These journalists are assigned a rating from negative to positive based on whether their past stories are critical or supportive of the military.

According to Stars and Stripes, the profiling's been going on for at least three years. The newspaper, which is funded by the government but editorially independent, broke the story in a series of articles this past week. The lead reporter on those stories, Charlie Reed, is on the line with us from Tokyo.

Charlie, welcome to the program.

Ms. CHARLIE REED (Reporter, Stars and Stripes): Thanks, Guy.

RAZ: Explain this rating system to us.

Ms. REED: Well, it appears from documents we've obtained that the rating consists of looking at journalists' work and applying some sort of matrix to how those stories factor in against the military's mission objective. I'm not quite sure exactly how that's done. However, it results in a positive, negative or neutral rating, which is then filtered to the public affairs officials who are facilitating these embeds with journalists.

RAZ: This is being done by an outside contractor for the Pentagon called the Rendon Group. You write about them in your articles. Can you tell us about the Rendon Group?

Ms. REED: The Rendon Group, as far as I know, has had a long time affiliation with the U.S. government which goes back to I believe the Gulf War. They...

RAZ: The first Gulf War in 1991?

Ms. REED: Yes. They're pretty tight-lipped firm. I mean they're a global strategic communication company. They've worked with the military in Afghanistan for several years, I think, at least going back to 2005 from the contracts I could find and from what Rendon told me themselves. We've been told - I was told that there's a Rendon official on the ground in Afghanistan with the public affairs shop in Kabul. So...

RAZ: With the U.S. military public affairs shop there.

Ms. REED: Yes.

RAZ: Charlie, we called up Army Colonel Wayne Shanks. He's a public affairs officer for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. We asked him how these profiles affect, you know, which reporters are granted access where and here's what he said. Take a listen.

Colonel WAYNE SHANKS (Spokesman, ISAF): We have never ever denied anybody a, you know, their access that they've requested out here because of one of these reports.

RAZ: Charlie, based on your reporting for this story, for these stories, is that accurate?

Ms. REED: We have a reporter by the name of Heath Druzin who was denied an embed in Iraq just a few months ago because he quote, "refuse to highlight positive coverage of the unit he wanted to embedded with." He had embedded with the unit, gone on to do some reporting on some other units, had requested an embed with the previous unit, and was denied apparently because he had not published positive stories about this unit.

I believe the military - and this is in Iraq. So it seems that this practice is happening in all the combat zones. But whether it's institutional or whether it's a sort of dependent on the public affairs person working the embed is unclear.

RAZ: Well, out of just curiosity, I mean a lot of people will hear this story and they'll say, well, you know, any corporation would do this, any institution would do this. They would look at the background of a reporter to determine whether that reporter might be hostile in his or her coverage. What's the big deal?

Ms. REED: The embed guidelines dictate that the military will not try and prevent derogatory or negative news from - coming from these embeds. So, to know where a reporter is coming from and to try and gauge what he or she may be pursuing is one thing. But to use a system by which their reporting is rated and then steer them away from things that they may want to cover seems to not jive with that policy.

RAZ: Charlie Reed is a reporter for Stars and Stripes. She broke the story about the Pentagon's ratings systems for reporters who cover the military in Afghanistan.

Charlie Reed, thanks so much.

Ms. REED: Thanks, Guy.

RAZ: And Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told us the Department of Defense will take an informal look at the program to determine whether any rules have been violated.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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