RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Support the troops. That phrase has become a mantra for many Americans, no matter how they feel about the conflict in Iraq. But what many people don't realize is that the support the troops message is being sponsored by the Pentagon.
NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the military's multi-million dollar P.R. campaign for hearts and minds on the home front.
Unidentified Announcer: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to RFK Stadium, home of your Washington Nationals.
MARTIN KASTE reporting:
So you're settling in for a nice afternoon of Major League Baseball and you hear this.
Unidentified Announcer: And now, Nationals fans, we invite you to show how much you care about our nation's military by sending a text message of support.
KASTE: A text message to the troops. Now, there's an idea.
Unidentified Announcer: We direct your attention to the stadium's scoreboard. Just enter TXASY.
KASTE: Seems simple enough. But as you're thumbing out your note to the guys and gals in Iraq, you have to wonder. Where is this message really going? To understand that, you need to know something about America Supports You. It's a publicity campaign, the brainchild of the Pentagon's P.R. chief Allison Barber. You may remember her as the person caught coaching troops to stay on script during a videoconference with the president last year. She declined numerous interview requests for this story.
Barber started America Supports You in the fall of 2004, around the time public opinion of the war was souring. One of the first things she did was reach out to an Orange County, California high school student name Shauna Fleming.
Ms. SHAUNA FLEMING (Founder, A Million Thanks): They were telling me that they're starting this awesome new program that links all of America. You know, people who want to do something for the troops, it links them to the different programs who are helping the troops.
KASTE: Fleming was already running her own campaign to send a million thank you letters to overseas troops. America Supports You made Fleming its poster girl, helping her effort with free stationery and other supplies. She says she's glad the Pentagon is connecting Americans directly to the troops.
Ms. FLEMING: If anything, it's the news that is, you know, tainting our view, when there's so many good things that, you know, America needs to know about.
KASTE: America Supports You has Web links to about 150 similar organizations. It also holds events, such as a pro-military parade called the Freedom Walk, scheduled for September 11th. Pentagon spokesman Greg Hicks says the Freedom Walk is not meant to connect Iraq with 9/11.
Mr. GREG HICKS (Spokesman for the Pentagon): The Freedom Walk is a-political. It's not about politics. This is a walk of remembrance. This is a walk of support, and a reflect on those freedoms and values of our country, and to show of appreciation of military men and women in the world who protect that freedom.
KASTE: America Supports You is hoping for Freedom Walks in all 50 states this year. It even paid for a teaching supplement in the grade school magazine Weekly Reader, to encourage kids to organize local Freedom Walks.
The supplement doesn't seem to have worked. A survey by the Weekly Reader's own market research department suggests the kids were actually less inclined to organize a Freedom Walk after seeing the Pentagon's pitch.
Effectiveness aside, all this publicity doesn't come cheap. Much of the work has been farmed out to a private P.R. firm, Susan Davis International. For the first year of America Supports You, the firm signed Pentagon contracts for more than $2.7 million. To some of the campaign's own staff that seems like money down the drain.
Mr. CHRIS MOORE(ph) (Former Webmaster, America Supports You): The moral was low.
KASTE: Chris Moore was the program's Webmaster until he quit late last month. He says the site has attracted few visitors. And remember that text message sent from the ballpark?
Mr. MOORE: The message is sent into a database and currently, at the point that I left, is sitting in a database.
KASTE: Moore says there was never any plan to do anything with the text messages. They just go to a hard drive and that's it. The Pentagon's Greg Hicks says they are supposed to be posted on the Web site for anyone to read. But so far, test cell phone messages from NPR have not appeared on the site. Hicks says those cell phone messages are about more than just being received by someone.
Mr. HICKS: It's kind of a measure of volume. It's kind of a measure of what it is that people are supporting. So it's an instantaneous way for people to show their support. And the volume of this support is something that resonates with our folks.
KASTE: But what's the point of spending tax dollars on a Pentagon program to count text messages? Robert Cole is a professor at Utah State University who specializes in the history of wartime propaganda. He says the only thing that's new about all this is the technology.
Professor C. ROBERT COLE (Professor of History, Utah State University): Propaganda, per se, is not necessarily always a negative thing. It can be a positive thing, as well. And to encourage people to support the troops is encouraging to the troops, but it's also encouraging to the people themselves.
KASTE: In other words, Cole says, the Pentagon's text-messaging campaign is meant, at least in part, for the benefit of the person hitting send.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.