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AP's Curley wants new rules of engagement (AP photo)

Pentagon PR spending soars

ASK THIS | February 23, 2009

Reporters need to examine where the line is between public relations and propaganda, or if there is a line at all. This year the cost of 'winning hearts and minds' at home and abroad is expected to be at least $4.7 billion. Can we expect change in an Obama administration?

By Diane Farsetta

It is well known by now that a secret Pentagon program recruited dozens of former military leaders as "message force multipliers." The Pentagon, starting in 2002, fed them talking points, took them on tightly-managed trips to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, and carefully monitored their media appearances. 

This pundits program, it appears, was only a small part of Pentagon attempts to get out its message in favorable terms. In the past five years, Defense Department spending on "winning hearts and minds" internationally and at home has soared – up 63 percent and expected to be at least $4.7 billion this year, including on public relations efforts in the United States. In December, the Pentagon's Inspector General found that the department's public affairs and propaganda operations might have been "inappropriately" merged. That seems to be putting it mildly.

These and other instances recently led Associated Press chief executive Tom Curley to call for new "rules of engagement between the military and the media." Given the new administration, he argued, "Now is the time to resist the propaganda the Pentagon produces and live up to our obligation to question authority and thereby help protect our democracy."

The Defense Department says that, in order to combat violent extremists, it must aggressively – and often covertly – engage in what it calls strategic communications. In doing so, is the Pentagon crossing ethical or legal lines? While the Bush administration encouraged such practices, President Obama has yet to comment on them – and, without external pressure, the Defense Department can’t be expected to change.  How should reporters cover these important issues? The following questions suggest some angles and flag upcoming events relevant to the ongoing propaganda debate.

Q. What is propaganda? Who decides?

It is illegal for the U.S. government to propagandize its own citizens, under the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. Congress reiterates this ban in its annual appropriations bills, which state that no government funds "shall be used for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not heretofore authorized by Congress." The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, defines "publicity or propaganda" as self-aggrandizement by public officials, purely partisan activities, or "covert propaganda."

According to the GAO, it is covert propaganda when the government source is not attributed, and government information or materials appear as though they came from an independent third party. A Reagan-era legal opinion clarified how government officials can interact with private sector supporters. In response to requests, officials can share information or materials "created in the normal course of business and not specifically produced for use by these private groups," according to the legal memo.  They can't "assist in the preparation of articles or statements by private sector supporters." Otherwise, officials would be mobilizing and directing third parties in their support of government policies and actions, which could easily lead to covert propaganda.

While these guidelines leave gray areas, they help define appropriate government communications practices. In 2004 and 2005, the GAO used these principles to assess the legality of government-funded video news releases (VNRs) – videos produced to look like news reports and air during television newscasts. The GAO concluded that VNRs are illegal covert propaganda, unless their government source is clear to viewers.  However, the law does not specify who has the authority to determine what is propaganda. This allowed the Bush administration's Justice Department to effectively overrule the GAO. The Justice Department argued that government VNRs are permissible, regardless of whether their source is clear, as long as they are informational and not persuasional. (The department didn't say how it distinguishes between informational and persuasional materials.)

More recently, members of Congress have questioned the legality of the Pentagon's pundit program. From 2002 to 2008, Defense Department officials cultivated dozens of high-profile former military leaders as – in their words – their  "surrogates" and "message force multipliers." The program targeted these retired officers, inviting them to participate in high-level department meetings, special briefings and overseas trips, and encouraging them to use administration talking points on controversial issues including Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping.

In January 2009, the Defense Department's Inspector General found there was an "insufficient basis" to conclude that the pundit program was illegal. While citing some of the GAO's rulings on covert propaganda, the internal Pentagon report stressed the department's need to inform the public, and noted the Justice Department's rejection of the GAO's VNR rulings. Congressional critics of the pundit program harshly criticized the Pentagon report; one called it a "whitewash."

Two other ongoing investigations into the Pentagon's pundit program, by the GAO and the Federal Communications Commission, may help clarify what constitutes propaganda. When these reports are released, it will be important to ask how they compare to the Pentagon's internal report, and to see how members of Congress respond to the new reports. Congress could specify how the long-standing propaganda bans could be enforced, by determining who can judge what is propaganda, and how to penalize those engaging in covert propaganda.

Q. How might Pentagon PR material reach U.S. media outlets?

The Associated Press recently identified a remarkably widespread yet low-profile domestic Pentagon media operation called the Joint Hometown News Service. It puts out thousands of press releases, VNRs and audio news releases (the radio equivalent of VNRs) each year, all covering military activities. Often, the source of these materials is not clear. For example, newspaper readers "are not told" that "each of these glowing stories was written by Pentagon staff," according to the AP. The Hometown News Web site says that "over 14,000 newspapers, radio stations and television stations subscribe to Hometown's free news service," listing "client" media outlets in all 50 U.S. states.

Do these media outlets realize that the Pentagon operates Hometown News?  If they use Hometown News materials, do they disclose to their news audiences that the Pentagon is the source?

The New York Times published its exposé of the Pentagon pundit program in April 2008. However, the vast majority of the media outlets where the pundits had appeared have yet to report on the story.  Only one, NPR, announced that it was improving its vetting process as a result, in an attempt to identify "potential conflicts of interest that even guests may not consider" that they have.

How do your local media outlets vet commentators and other content providers for potential conflicts of interest?

Q. Will the Obama administration rein in controversial communications practices?

President Obama has said that he will make government more transparent, but he has not addressed propaganda and disclosure issues. The Pentagon's pundit program, which began under former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, continued for 16 months after current Secretary Robert Gates took office. (The program was suspended shortly after the New York Times report on it.) Obama's choice to head the Federal Communications Commission is reported to be Julius Genachowski, who helped develop candidate Obama's technology plan. The plan does not address propaganda and disclosure issues, nor has Genachowski taken a public stance on these issues.

Does President Obama think that the Pentagon's pundit program was illegal? How will he respond, when the pending reports on the program are released? Will his nominee to chair the FCC support full disclosure of government-funded media materials?

Democracy in USA
Posted by M. Shahjahan Bhatti
04/17/2009, 09:21 AM

It refers to an article by Diane Farsetta on Nieman Watchdog's web site.
It proves my convictions that no one can fool the people of USA. If there are gaps, American genius will fill it up in due course of time.

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