What to Do with a Pentagon PR 'No Comment'

When you're a reporter, it's always hard to know how to react when someone doesn't want to talk to you. It's actually something of an ethical dilemma.

Take the case of this story, about the Pentagon public relations program known as "America Supports You." It's a feel-good campaign, the kind of thing a government agency is usually falling all over itself to talk to you about. "Will I go on the record about our program to get people to support the troops? Will I?!"

But when I called "America Supports You" to get interviews on its "text-message the troops" program, they just shut down on me. At first, the representative for Susan Davis International, the PR firm running the program, was gung-ho. But then, when I asked for an interview with Pentagon official Allison Barber — the inventor and grand master of ”America Supports You" — this is what I got back:

Martin — Allison politely declines for now. I can though get any questions you may have answered in writing through some of her folks if you wish.

Written questions? About a feel-good program?

This is the moment in a reporter's day when he has to wonder why.

Thanks to Ms. Barber's reticence, I had time to do a little research. I had time to figure out the Pentagon's fiendishly non-intuitive budget database. Without those extra couple of days, I would never have found the records of the $2.7 million in private PR contracts to run the "America Supports You" for its first year.

We also had time to dig up the America Supports You "teaching supplement" in Weekly Reader — it's harder than you think to find back-issues of periodicals aimed at third-graders.

And then there's the internal memo from Weekly Reader's market-research department. The Pentagon's PR firm paid for a study of the supplement's effectiveness on children in grades three through six. Apparently, it wasn't as effective as they'd hoped on the 1,800 grade-schoolers surveyed. Some of the results:

Percentage of kids who would say "thank you" the next time they see a person in military uniform.

Pre-Exposure: 68.9% Post-Exposure: 65.9%

Becoming a pen pal for a service person overseas.

Pre-Exposure: 60.8% Post-Exposure: 54.6%

... and so on.

I also wouldn't have had time to find Marty Horn, the Army veteran who runs a private support-the-troops site, AnySoldier.com. He says he had to fight tooth and nail to get listed on AmericaSupportsYou.mil, but once he succeeded, he says he barely got any traffic from them — about 2 percent of his total. Horn says he got three times more hits when he was featured on Michael Moore's site.

And I wouldn't have had time to test their online "message to the troops" system, which apparently edits out all political content, with the exception of sentiments in praise of President Bush, finishing the job in Iraq and criticisms of antiwar protestors. Those comments are left in.

Still, nothing I found was illegal, or even morally suspect. So the Pentagon's publicity effort isn't all they hoped it would be — so what? Is that really why Ms. Barber doesn't want to talk about it? And why is it that, when I tried to ask Army Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody about "America Supports You," a Pentagon PR woman suddenly interrupted, grabbed my microphone arm and tried to pull me away? (I was asking politely, I swear I was! If you know what Cody looks like, you'll believe I was on my best behavior.)

Which brings us back to the ethical dilemma. A reporter has to be careful not to equate silence with guilt. Even a hand on your microphone doesn't equate guilt — though it will get your adrenaline going.

But if the subject's silence inspires a reporter to take the time to paint a more detailed, analytical picture of a feel-good program, then I guess that's only fair. It's just the built-in hazard of "no comment."

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