American Pie 13.12.05

Jeffrey Blyth, New York December 12, 2005

The efforts by the
US Government to plant positive stories in Iraq newspapers – even if
they have to pay to do so – is greater than anyone imagined. And has
been going on longer than anyone thought. It turns out there is an
outfit at Fort Bragg in North Carolina whose only job is turning out
what are termed “truthful stories” about what America is doing and
trying to achieve in Iraq. About l,200 writers and producers – all in
uniform – put together each day a mixture of news, pictures, tapes and
other material – even music – for tv, radio stations, newspapers and
magazines in the Middle East and Afghanistan. There is daily
communication between the centre and Bagdad and Kabul Officials at the
base conceded in an interview with a reporter from the NY Times that
the stories they put out may be one-sided but they refuse to use the
word propaganda, ” That’s what the enemy calls it, but we call it
information” a spokesman told The Times.

All this on top of the
revelation recently that a public relations firm with headquarters in
Washington and identified as The Lincoln Group, is paying newspapers in
Iraq to print “good news: – much of it again written by Americans At
first the White House denied any knowledge of the operation, but then
agreed to ask the Pentagon for a report. Members of Congress also
demanded to know more, claiming the practice undermines American
credibility in the Middle East. Of course this in many ways is
reminiscent of the Black Radio, which operated out of Britain during
WW2 under the direction of former Daily Expressman Sefton Delmar,
except that his outfit deliberately put out fake stories to disorient
and deceive the Germans, The American military, it is claimed , has
similarly secretly operated radio stations and newspapers in Iraq and
Afghanistan, who never disclose they have an American connection,. The
news they carry is attributed to the “International Information Centre”
– an untraceable organization.

The Lincoln Group, its been said,
planted more than 1,000 articles in the Iraq and Arab press. . At one
time there was talk of expanding into neighbouring countries, including
putting out an” underground newspaper” and a television sit-com about
terrorism to be called The Three Stooges. Both ideas were scotched. How
much the US Government has spent on its covert news operation no one
will say, but it has been reported that until the recent disclosures
newspapers in Iraq were typically paid between $1,000 to $2,.000 to run
articles, and journalists were paid between $400 and $500 a month to
write or place pro-American articles in their papers or magazines. It
supposedly had at least 300 Iraqi journalists on its “payroll”

Another
big debate here over sources for news stories. This time it’s the
growing number of web sites that are being used to obtain information.
Often without proper identification. Too many reporters today, instead
of using shoe leather, it’s claimed limit their reporting and
interviewing to a computer. The big question: How many people
interviewed on a website can be trusted – or tell the truth. Reporters
who interview people face to face, or even over a telephone, have
usually an idea whether a person is lying or fudging the truth. A halt
in the conversation, hesitation over answering a question can be
revealing. But that doesn’t happen when the Q and A is done by e-mail.
E-mail gives someone being interviewed the opportunity to prevaricate
or deceive. Also who really knows who is answering the e-mail? The
chairman of the company, a secretary, a clerk – or maybe a janitor who
happens to be cleaning the office and knows how to use a computer?. It
encourages lazy reporting, some editors say. One suggestion, which some
papers are adopting, is to say in a story that an interview was
conducted by e-mail. There is however a positive side: it’s hard with
an e-mail to claim afterwards that a reporter got it wrong or his notes
were inaccurate. Nevertheless as Jeanine Guttman, editor of the
Portland Press Herald, often tells her reporters: “:Get out of the
office. Be a journalist. Not a stenographer”

Why are
journalists in America held in such low esteem these days? Why is the
media no longer trusted? No its not Jayson Blair, the NY Times man who
plagiarized many of his stories and created a scandal that cost the
Times’ editor his job. Nor journalists like Judy Miller who refuse to
name their sources. Or any of the other scandals, like the CBS claim
that President Bush had dodged some of his military service, that have
plagued newspapers and the rest of the media here in recent years. No,
it’s Hollywood, according to New York Times columnist David Carr. He
believes that a number of movies lately have diminished journalism and
journalism. Take the recent release “Capote” about Truman Capote, the
reporter turned novelist, who, according to the movie connived and
cheated to get the inside story of the murder of an American farm
couple back in the Sixties., or the very new movie “Munich” in which a
frantic electronic chase by journalists in pursuit of a story tips off
terrorists. As for the big blockbuster of this season, the new version
of “”King Kong”, it still has photographers and their flashbulbs
driving the captured gorilla beserk.. Even some older movies such as
“Front Page”, in retrospect, painted a portrait of journalists behaving
badly, taunting a woman to jump out of a window, lying and cheating,
making up stories. One expert who works near Hollywood, Joseph
Saltzman, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern
California, avers ” Much of the image of the journalist as a
money-grubbing, selfish, arrogant scoundrel is based on images from
movies and television .. Hollywood.when it needs someone in a movie who
is greasy, self-interested, it can easily insert a fast-talking guy
with a notebook and soup stains on his tie” In other words a scoundrel.
The trouble, some say, is that the two worlds – the press as depicted
in movies and the real press – are beginning to merge:

Ways that
some newspapers here are beginning to economise: Some are telling
reporters to keep their stories short. No longer than half-a-column. To
save newsprint. Others, like the Akron Beacon-Journal in Ohio, are
cutting back on office supplies. Reporters there have been told that
until next year they must share pencils and notebooks. The only
exception: Photographers have been assured they will be re-supplied
with batteries for their cameras. But that was only after they had
warned management there would be no pictures if they weren’t.

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