Does Iraq Propaganda Cross Ethical Lines?

The Pentagon is coming under mounting criticism for allegedly paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-American stories. The Los Angeles Times first broke the story on Wednesday, and other news organizations are uncovering more revelations about the program. Mike Pesca reviews some American propaganda efforts during war time, and the ethical lines that may have been crossed.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The lead today: allegations that the Pentagon is secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories favorable to the US-led military mission in Iraq. Today, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John Warner, has convened a closed-door session to ask Pentagon officials about these allegations. According to details first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, the Pentagon hired a media consulting firm, the Lincoln Group, to translate and place stories in Iraqi papers. First, newspaper columnist Helen Thomas pressed White House press secretary Scott McClellan on the issue yesterday.

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Columnist): Who's watching the store, really? How can we spend millions of dollars to plant positive stories in Iraq and nobody around here knows anything about it?

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): Well, again, this is....

Ms. THOMAS: How is that possible?

Mr. McCLELLAN: This is based off some media reports. We want to find out what those facts are.

CHADWICK: Here now is NPR's Mike Pesca with some analysis of past attempts by the US to sway foreign public opinion.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

American propaganda is older than the United States itself. If James Monroe is the father of the Constitution, maybe Benjamin Franklin should be called the father of covert ops. During the Revolutionary War, he sent a hoax newspaper to England. It succeeded in convincing members of the British public that the Crown was paying Indians for the scalps of American settlers. But our adversaries and audiences have grown more sophisticated. That's why bribing Iraqi papers was simply a ham-handed effort, says Nick Cull, historian of propaganda at the Center On Public Diplomacy at USC.

Mr. NICK CULL (Center On Public Diplomacy, USC): Each generation, people come along, they find these mechanisms of psychological warfare or propaganda or information, whatever you want to call it, and they overestimate what they can do, and then they have to learn the hard way the limits of persuasion.

PESCA: William Rugh, former ambassador to Yemen and author of the books, "The Arab Press" and "Arab Mass Media," says a big problem is that the Defense Department's definition of persuasion--as with its psychological operations or psyops units--has always been very narrowly focused at a specific goal, whereas true public diplomacy must take the long view.

Former Ambassador WILLIAM RUGH (Former US Ambassador to Yemen; Author): And the Pentagon was never involved in public diplomacy. They did psyops, which is a very short-term effort to support a specific military operation. But what we're talking about here in Iraq is really a political problem, and it's really a question of establishing more normal relations. And the Pentagon has been given a lot of money and a lot of support in doing all kinds of things that they're not equipped to do, like public diplomacy.

PESCA: But the CIA and the US Information Agency have been engaged in propaganda efforts since the Cold War. During the Reagan years, Alvin Snyder ran the USIA's TV and Film Service. He thinks America's apparent blunder in paying for Iraqi news stories could have been solved by full disclosure.

Mr. ALVIN SNYDER (Former USIA Official): These news reports that they're putting on in Iraq are expressing a point of view. And it's the view of the US military, so why not say so? I mean, that's the rub. The articles are not being properly sourced. And if it's the truth, one should not be reticent about claiming credit for having made it possible.

PESCA: Snyder just this morning has e-mailed with military officials in Iraq who explained to him their rationale behind the program.

Mr. SNYDER: They stressed that none of these stories are lies or untruths, and that the only independent papers in Iraq, they say, are the ones that they fund, the military funds. They stress to me that while the US military is funding them now, the objective is for those media organizations to become their own self-reliant organizations that sell advertising and newspapers to survive rather than to rely on the US.

PESCA: So according to Snyder, the military says it's funding the papers to ensure their survival. Ambassador Rugh contends that nothing hurts an Iraqi paper more than the perception that it's on the military's payroll. And there's even a question of the generosity of the funding itself. The London Guardian quoted the editor of one Iraqi paper as saying if he knew the story he was being paid to print was from the US government, he would have, quote, "charged much, much more." Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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