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Poll: Most think propaganda campaign in Iraq wrong

Almost three-quarters of Americans think it was wrong for the Pentagon to pay Iraqi newspapers to publish news about U.S. efforts in Iraq, a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.

USA TODAY reported earlier this month that the Pentagon plans to expand beyond Iraq an anti-terrorism public relations campaign that has included secret payments to Iraqi journalists and publications who printed stories favorable to the USA. In some cases, the stories will be prepared by U.S. military personnel, as they have been in Iraq.

The military will not always reveal it was behind the stories, said Mike Furlong, deputy director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element. The global program will be part of a five-year public relations campaign costing up to $300 million.

The poll shows that most Americans don't approve of such programs. Of the 1,003 people surveyed Dec. 16-18, 72% said it would be inappropriate for the U.S. military to secretly pay Iraqi media to publish stories favorable to the USA. And almost two-thirds said such payments would bother them a "fair amount" or a "great deal." The payments in Iraq were first disclosed Nov. 30 by the Los Angeles Times.

"It just seems like propaganda that could be favorable to the U.S. but not what the American people are thinking and more what the Pentagon wants to reflect," says Sharyn Barkan, 50, of Blue Bell, Pa., who responded to the poll. "That doesn't sound right to me."

Critics see a familiar pattern

The Pentagon's secret public relations work in Iraq has been in the news since the Los AngelesTimes revealed that the Lincoln Group, as part of a $6 million Pentagon contract, had paid members of the Iraqi news media to anonymously publish stories written by U.S. military personnel. The military has started an investigation of the program.

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman says the Pentagon understands the public's concern about the pay-to-publish program and is reviewing the "policies, procedures and performance of not only the servicemembers that have been involved but also the contractor that's been used."

"It's important to acknowledge that we're dealing with a very tough communications environment in Iraq ... where our enemies and adversaries make it a practice to misinform, to deceive and to lie about what's going on," he says. The goal of the military, he says, is to give Iraqis "good, accurate and timely information."

There has been no evidence that the stories placed in Iraqi media were untrue, but hiding that they were written by U.S. personnel puts them more in the sphere of propaganda than public relations, says William Rugh, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates and author of the 2004 book Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio and Television in Arab Politics.

Word of the payments to Iraqi journalists followed stories earlier this year about work awarded by the federal government to a few newspaper columnists in the USA who support Bush administration policies. The payments included $240,000 to commentator Armstrong Williams.

Some critics of the administration see a pattern.

"These are all parts of an effort by the administration to manipulate information," says David Brock, president of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America.

Rugh worries that the practice raises troubling questions about whether the U.S. government is committed to an independent media. "It's totally inappropriate for the military to be doing this," he says. "It undermines the reputation of the United States and what we're trying to do."

Others defend the Pentagon.

"I don't think there's anything egregious here. (In Iraq) they were just trying to get some good stories out," says Bill Cowan, CEO of the security-consulting firm WVC3. He's listed by the Lincoln Group, the public relations firm that placed stories in Iraqi media on behalf of the Pentagon, as one of the company's advisers. Cowan, though, says he's just an acquaintance of some of Lincoln Group's managers and has not worked with the firm.

'Trying to level the playing field'

James Wright, 67, a retired Air Force technical sergeant who splits his time between homes in Michigan and Arizona, is among the minority in the public who aren't concerned about what has been done.

"As long as they're paying to put out good, honest stories, I'm all for it," he says.

The government can legally spread propaganda in foreign nations.

However, doing so isn't always wise, says Nicholas Cull, director of the graduate program in public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and a propaganda historian whose next book is to be titled Selling America: U.S. Information Overseas. He's particularly worried about whether planting stories in Iraq is smart.

"If it does work in Iraq, if the Iraqi people feel differently as a result of this, then it's justifiable. But I would be surprised if they do," Cull says. "The people in Iraq know much more than we do about what's happening there."

Others say the Pentagon's actions are understandable because the USA is battling an increasingly sophisticated enemy that can easily capture the attention of local and international media by staging deadly attacks.

The Pentagon is "trying to level the playing field. The opposition is very clever and basically gets a free run in the media over there," says Douglas Dearth, another of the Lincoln Group's advisers who says he has done no work with the firm. He has taught at the U.S. Army War College and is a consultant to the British Ministry of Defense.

Date posted: December 22, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 8