The Pentagon authorized a private public relations firm to compile background profiles on journalists seeking to cover the war in Afghanistan that rated the reporters' past work as "positive," "negative," or "neutral," according to Stars and Stripes, a daily military newspaper authorized and funded by the Department of Defense.
According to one U.S. Army official cited by Stars and Stripes, the military used the profiles as recently as 2008 to deny the requests of disfavored reporters to embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a practice the Pentagon denied.
Stars and Stripes revealed the existence of the profiling practice in a series of reports it published in late August 2009. Professional journalist groups sharply criticized the rating system and the publicity culminated in the military canceling its $1.5 million contract with The Rendon Group, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm.
Military officials defended the background profiles as a means to familiarize commanders with the topics embedded journalists might cover and to help generate coverage tailored to a reporter's interests. Defense Department representatives repeatedly said the military did not use the profiles to determine whether journalists would be granted permission to embed with U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but rather as a barometer for measuring its own success in effectively communicating information to the public, the newspaper reported.
"We have not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography," said Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a public affairs officer with U.S. Forces Afghanistan in Kabul, in an August 24 Stars and Stripes report. "It's so we know with whom we're working."
Maj. Patrick Seiber, spokesman for the Army's 101st Airborne Division, contradicted Mathias in an August 29 Stars and Stripes report. Seiber said he routinely used the profiles his superior officers sent him to help decide whether to grant requests to cover military units in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
"If a reporter has been focused on nothing but negative topics, you're not going to send him into a unit that's not your best," Seiber said. "There's no win-win there for us. We're not trying to control what they report, but we are trying to put our best foot forward."
Seiber recalled at least two instances in which he used information in the profiles as a factor in refusing embed requests. He rejected a request from one reporter who had allegedly done "poor reporting" and denied another reporter who had been accused of violating embed rules by releasing classified information.
"In one case we had a writer who had taken a story out of context and really done some irresponsible reporting," Seiber said. "When I looked at that on the [profile], I decided if that guy is going to take that much effort to handle and correct I wasn't going to put a unit at risk with an amateur journalist."
The Rendon Group disputed the Stars and Stripes reports, saying it neither rates the work of individual reporters nor recommends whether a journalist should be embedded. In a news release posted August 26 on the Rendon Web site, the firm said it quantifies news coverage based on its attitude toward key United States interests, such as stability, security, counterinsurgency and operational results.
"The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters. The analysis is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist's inquiries, and [Rendon] does not make recommendations as to who the military should or should not interview," the firm said in the release.
Stars and Stripes obtained Pentagon documents that the newspaper claimed proves the military evaluated reporters' coverage as "positive," "neutral" or "negative." The introduction to one reporter's profile the newspaper obtained reads, "The purpose of this memo is to provide an assessment of [a reporter from a major U.S. newspaper] . . . in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan."
One profile described a staff reporter at a pre-eminent American newspaper as "neutral to positive" in his coverage of the U.S. military. The profile suggested the writer's stories "could possibly be neutralized" by feeding him mitigating quotes from military officials, Stars and Stripes reported on August 27. The newspaper revealed in the same report that a reporter for an unnamed major U.S. newspaper received an 83.33 percent "neutral" rating and a 16.67 "negative" rating based on an assessment of 12 stories published over a 16-month period that ended in May 2009. The Stars and Stripes report does not indicate whether all the ratings it cited applied to the same journalist.
Another Pentagon profile described a television journalist as providing coverage from a "subjective angle." The profile mentioned that steering the journalist toward covering "the positive work of a successful operation" could "result in favorable coverage," according to Stars and Stripes.
"I haven't seen anything that violates any policies, but again, I'm learning about aspects of this as I question our folks in Afghanistan," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in an August 28 Stars and Stripes report as coverage of the profiling began to gain momentum. "If I find something that is inconsistent with Defense Department values and policies, you can be sure I will address it." Whitman added that the Pentagon would not launch a formal inquiry into the use of the profiles.
Several journalists obtained copies of their military profiles and shared the contents of the reports. Freelance writer P.J. Tobia, whose articles on Afghanistan have been published in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and other publications, posted a copy of his Rendon profile on his True/Slant blog on August 28. The report summarizes Tobia's previous embed articles and concludes, "Based on his previous embed and past reporting, it is unlikely that he will miss an opportunity to report on US military missteps. However, if following previous trends, he will remain sympathetic to US troops and may acknowledge a learning curve in Afghanistan."
On his blog, Tobia complimented the military's effort to learn about reporters, but he expressed concern about the level of detail in his profile. "I think the military is smart to look into the background's [sic] of people who will be writing about them," he wrote. "Rating the coverage that reporters give the military -"positive," "neutral," "negative"-seems a bit silly and slightly Orwellian, but if thousands of reporters were covering my organization, I would want a simple shorthand to indentify [sic] them as well.
"I do think the reports are creepy though. These guys have read almost everything I've written in the last few years, even interviews I've given to local news blogs. Reading this report is like perusing the diary of your stalker. Rendon also classifies certain publications as 'left leaning' which I find odd." The blog post and excerpts from Tobia's Rendon report are available at http://trueslant.com/pjtobia/2009/08/28/the-us-military-investigates-afghan-desk/.
Another freelance journalist, Nir Rosen, who has reported for Time and Rolling Stone, told Stars and Stripes for a September 1 report that military officials overseas almost blocked his embed requests because profiles labeled him an opponent of the Iraq war. Rosen said his report warned that he might "circumvent security and administrative restrictions in order to pursue other story angles," an accusation he denied.
The screening of reporters by the military drew the ire of leaders of professional journalist groups. "The whole concept of doing profiles on reporters who are going to embed with the military is alarming," said Ron Martz, president of Military Reporters and Editors, in an August 24 Stars and Stripes story. "It speaks to this whole issue of trying to shape the message and that's not something the military should be involved with."
Amy Mitchell, deputy director for Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, also criticized the policy in the August 24 story. "That's the government doing things to put out the message they want to hear and that's not the way journalism is meant to work in this country," Mitchell said.
Aidan White, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, pointed to the profiles as evidence that the U.S. military is not allowing journalists to work freely. "It suggests they [the military] are more interested in propaganda than honest reporting," White said, according to an August 31 Reuters report.
Some journalists defended the military's work to compile profiles on reporters seeking to embed with U.S. troops. Thomas Ricks, a special military correspondent for The Washington Post who has covered the U.S. military overseas for more than 25 years and written two books about the war in Iraq, characterized the reporter profiles as a necessity in a September 1 post on The Best Defense blog.
"Commanders need to know who they are dealing with, and it is the job of public affairs officers to tell them," wrote Ricks, who added that he has twice viewed official military files that have been compiled on him. "I actually wish the military knew more about the media - it is amazing how much bellyaching officers do about reporters without knowing what they are talking about."
In his "From the Chairman" column in the October 2009 edition of Joint Force Quarterly, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military's concern with its image is misplaced. "To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate," Mullen wrote. "I would argue that most strategic communications problems are not problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."
On August 31, the U.S. military announced that it had canceled its $1.5 million contract with Rendon, effective September 1. "The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone," Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith wrote in an e-mail sent August 30 to Stars and Stripes. "As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon's support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission." The one-year contract with Rendon called for the firm to provide a range of media analysis services to the military beyond the reporter profiles.
Rendon has drawn criticism before for its work surrounding the Iraq War. According to an August 25 AP story, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and other critics claimed the Pentagon hired Rendon to create an information campaign designed to convince the American public and members of Congress that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States. An investigation by the Defense Department inspector general found no evidence to support the allegations.
A classified review made public in 2008 revealed the Pentagon relied extensively on Rendon for communications advice, analysis of media coverage, and training foreign governments in public relations, the August 25 AP story reported.
Stars and Stripes garnered praise from some journalists for questioning the actions of the military despite being a Pentagon-authorized newspaper. "[N]o one should doubt the daily's editorial independence from the Defense Department," Frank Smyth wrote in an August 28 post on the Committee to Protect Journalists blog.
- Cary Snyder
Silha Research Assistant