U.S. Placing Stories in Iraq Media As part of an information offensive in Iraq, the U.S. military reportedly paid Iraqi newspapers to plant favorable stories about its efforts to rebuild the country. The reporter who broke the story discusses the controversial policy.
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U.S. Placing Stories in Iraq Media

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U.S. Placing Stories in Iraq Media

U.S. Placing Stories in Iraq Media

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The Los Angeles Times reported today that the United States military secretly pays Iraqi newspapers to publish upbeat stories written by American troops. The story appeared in today's editions of the Los Angeles Times. One of its co-authors, Mark Mazetti, joins us now to talk about it on the phone.

Nice to have you on the program, Mark.

Mr. MARK MAZETTI (Los Angeles Times): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: How did you find out about this?

Mr. MAZETTI: We have been following this issue of information operations that the military is carrying out in Iraq for some time, and we've talked to several sources, both in the military--you know, current military, senior military officers, and some outside experts and some with a knowledge of some of the contractors who do this type of work in Iraq.

CONAN: And how does it work?

Mr. MAZETTI: Well, what we reported in our story today is that the--as part of this information operation defensive currently under way in Iraq, basically, the soldiers in Baghdad write up what they call `storyboards,' which are basic--a description of events. It could be a raid against insurgents. It could be Iraqis banding together against terrorist attacks. And they write them up sort of as news stories, and then they're passed off to a US contractor called The Lincoln Group, which then has a staff of Iraqis that translate the stories into Arabic and edits them to some extent. And then those stories are then placed in Iraqi newspapers, and there's, you know, been a proliferation of Iraqi newspapers since the fall of Saddam, so it's a fairly lucrative arrangement.

CONAN: Do--are the newspapers aware that these materials are coming to them indirectly from the US military?

Mr. MAZETTI: Yes and no. We talked to several news editors and reporters at Iraqi papers, and some professed that they had no knowledge that there was any US connection with this. Some said, actually, very up front, `We did know this, and we're running them anyway, and they paid us money.' So we were--our thoughts are--is that they're, to some extent, the--this is going on and not a lot of questions are asked in these Iraqi newspapers, many of which are very cash-strapped and they need the money.

CONAN: We're talking with Mark Mazetti of the Los Angeles Times, defense correspondent for that paper, about his story in today's editions called "US Military Covertly Pays to Run Stories in Iraqi Press." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Mark, as you mentioned, there has been a proliferation of media--newspapers, magazines--in Iraq, cited by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, among others in the administration, as one of the great signs of changes and democracy, freedom of expression, in Iraq. What does it say that the United States is exploiting that to publish sunny accounts of its activities?

Mr. MAZETTI: Well, that's one of the ironies in the story, is that while on one hand you have the military carrying out these secret payments to Iraqi newspapers to run these stories, on the other hand you have the US State Department in Iraq that's training Iraqi journalists in the basics of journalism ethics. And, you know, they're running one workshop right now called The Role of Press in a Democratic Society. And so you have one side of the US government propping up the media, and many argue the other side of the US government subverting the burgeoning Iraqi media.

CONAN: Is this legal?

Mr. MAZETTI: It is. It is, although there are some gray areas. The US military is allowed to carry out information operations against foreign audiences. They're not, by US law, allowed to do propaganda or information operations against the US audience or any US-based network, television or newspaper. However, as people point out, there's no longer really any firm, clear lines about what constitutes domestic audiences and what constitutes foreign audiences. In the age of 24-hour news and the Internet and blogs, everybody sees everything. So if you have something that you try to get into Iraqi media or any other foreign news organization, there's inevitably going to be some sort of blow-back that other Western organizations could pick up. So there are legal gray areas, but as we've seen in our story, there--no one is actually breaking any US law by these specific actions.

CONAN: This--those of us old enough, I guess, will remember that these kinds of activities happened during Vietnam, as well.

Mr. MAZETTI: Well, this is one of the interesting things you'll find within the military. And as we report in our story, there are several senior military officials who are really against this practice. And to some extent there's a generational gap. There's a lot of officials who came into the military after Vietnam, where they saw that the credibility of the military was at its low point, and they spent decades trying to ensure that the military was trusted by the American people. And they think that right now that is the case, that Americans still believe what the military tells them. And they fear that things like this that are done to subvert the news media will destroy the credibility of the US military, and they see that--that these types of things lead them down that path. So there is a real sort of disagreement within the military over these types of things.

CONAN: Your story was about articles in newspapers. What about other media? What about television, radio?

Mr. MAZETTI: We have heard of other efforts to get news video into Iraqi media that sort of originated with the US military, but that was not something that we put in our story, and we don't have any specific examples. We do know, though, that--we were told by military officials that, as part of this information offensive going on, the military has, in essence, controlled--taking control of a newspaper in Iraq and a radio station, where they sort of control editorial content. And in no case in this newspaper or radio do they say this is, you know, the US military putting out its propaganda. We don't know the name of the station or the newspaper, but we are told that that is going on.

CONAN: And there are openly American-sponsored stations, Radio Sawa, for example.

Mr. MAZETTI: Yes, certainly. And, I mean, no one questions the military doing this in an overt manner or even paying for advertisements in newspapers that say, you know, `Paid for by the US military in Iraq,' and sort of citing some of the progress being made. All these above-board things, I don't think anyone has any qualms with.

CONAN: Mark Mazetti, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MAZETTI: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: Mark Mazetti, a defense correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. The article of which he is the co-author appears in today's editions of that newspaper.

Stay tuned to NPR News for continued coverage of the president's speech today in Annapolis and reactions to it as he describes a victory plan for Iraq. If you'd like to read the president's speech, the Strategy for Victory document, and NPR's coverage, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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