Without knowing more details — and upcoming Senate inquiries may take care of that — it’s hard to say that disclosures that the U.S. military paid to plant stories in the Iraqi press are any kind of big deal, although it does sound as if, as usual, we overpaid.
Propaganda is a legitimate and at times even useful tool of war and diplomacy, and it’s not like the United States gets a fair shake _ at least what we consider fair _ in the Arab press.
Propaganda can be a two-edged sword, as this program has turned out to be. Although unfortunately common in large parts of the world, pay-for-play does not accord with our own principles of a free press and journalistic ethics, principles we have been trying to convey to the Iraqis. And once disclosed, it calls into question the legitimate stories carried by outlets like the VOA and Arab-language broadcast channels associated with the U.S. government.
Thanks to the censorship and the blatant propaganda of their own governments, Arab peoples rightly tend to be skeptical of whatever their media tell them. That’s why the determinedly independent news channel al-Jazeera carries such clout in the Mideast. But now, however pure our motives, we’re tarred with the same brush of suspicion.
And then there’s the question of whether this media buy was really necessary. The U.S. military affairs apparatus, despite the occasional clinker like falsely glamorizing Pat Tillman’s death, is a marvel of providing generous amounts of useful, accurate, unspun information. Giving Iraqi reporters the same access as other journalists might be more effective than bribing their publishers.
And after its own missteps in the world of propaganda _ paying pundit Armstrong Williams to promote an education bill, disguising video press releases as news, Bush confidante Karen Hughes’ embarrassing forays into public diplomacy _ you would think this administration especially would be sensitive to the dangers of over-the-top spin doctoring. It always gets out and always looks bad when it does.
Still, propaganda is a game we are forced to play, but do we have to do it so clumsily?
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com)