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    Middle East
     Feb 23, 2006
Rumsfeld declares war on 'bad' press
By Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON - Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has signaled that he plans to intensify a campaign to influence global media coverage of the United States, a move that is likely to heighten the debate over press freedom and propaganda-free reporting.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Rumsfeld said Washington would launch a new drive to spread and defend US views, especially on the "war on terror".

He cited the Cold War-era initiatives of the US Information Agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, widely viewed outside the

United States as sophisticated propaganda outlets, as a model for the new offensive.

If similar efforts over the past five years are any example, the campaign is likely to take place in two main areas - the US media and the press in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where Washington sees its strategic influence as pivotal.

On Tuesday, Rumsfeld also said the Pentagon was "reviewing" its practice of paying to plant good news stories in the Iraqi news media, contradicting a previous assertion that the controversial propaganda program had been halted.

Critics in Washington say the new media blitz joins a long list of decisions by the administration of President George W Bush, such as ordering the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens without warrants, monitoring library records and compiling databases on US citizens who disagree with the administration's policies, that are leading the country down an authoritarian path - ironically, one that is not far from those Middle Eastern regimes that have long clamped down on freedom of expression and independent journalism.

And they note that the US mainstream media already tend toward a conservative interpretation of events, with scant regard for opposing views.

According to a study released this month by the Washington-based media organization Media Matters for America, conservative voices have considerably outnumbered liberal voices for the past nine years on the Sunday morning television news shows, considered among the pinnacles of US journalism.

The report analyzed the content of influential shows such as NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, and ABC's This Week. It classified each of the nearly 7,000 guests who appeared during the 1997-2005 period as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive or neutral. It found that guests opposing the Bush administration's policies, during both terms, were given only enough space to maintain a veneer of fairness and accuracy. Congressional opponents of the Iraq war, for example, were mostly missing from the Sunday shows, particularly during the period just before the war began in March 2003.

"If conservative dominance in this major arena of [US] public opinion-making continues as it has in the past nine years, it may have serious consequences for future policy debates and elections," said David Brock, president of Media Matters for America.

"This study should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who thinks they are seeing balanced discourse on Sunday mornings - and to those responsible for producing this [unbalanced] programming," he said.

Rumsfeld's plan would almost certainly seek to bolster such sympathetic reporting. In his speech, the US military chief used war terminology to refer to the media. He said that "some of the most critical battles may not be in the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq, but in newsrooms - in places like New York, London, Cairo and elsewhere".

According to Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a magazine put out by the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), "They see the mutilation of information that reaches the public as a key part of their war strategy, and I think that is a very dangerous way for the military to be looking at their job in a democracy.

"When people talk about the 'home front' they do not realize what sinister implications that has. The public is seen as another front that the military is fighting out."

Rumsfeld recommended that the media be part of every move in the "war on terror", including an increase in Internet operations, the establishment of 24-hour press operations centers, and training military personnel in other channels of communication.

He said the government would work to hire more media experts from the private sector and that there would be less emphasis on the print press.

The State Department is also stepping up its propaganda efforts. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for US$74 million to expand broadcasting and Internet campaigns in Iran, as well as to promote student exchanges, in order to destabilize the regime there.

But to many independent media analysts, the Bush administration has too often confused propaganda with facts and information. "I think that in the Pentagon world view, facts become instrumentalized," Naureckas said.

"The point of putting out information is to achieve your military objectives. It's not to serve truth in some kind of abstract sense. And once you start looking at it this way, the difference between a true statement and false statement really becomes very little."

The Bush administration has had some success in influencing the media at home in the US, a country with generally sophisticated and discerning media operations.

Last week, US lawmaker Henry Waxman and other senior Democratic leaders released a new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a congressional oversight body, which found that the Bush administration spent a whopping $1.6 billion on public relations and media over the past two-and-a-half years to sway public opinion.

"The government is spending over a billion dollars per year on PR and advertising," said Waxman. "Careful oversight of this spending is essential given the track record of the Bush administration, which has used taxpayer dollars to fund covert propaganda within the United States."

The opposition Democrats had asked the GAO to conduct that study after evidence emerged last year that the Bush administration had commissioned "covert propaganda" from PR firms that pushed video news releases that appeared to regular viewers as independent newscasts.

The report found that the administration's PR and advertising contracts spanned a wide range of issues, including message development presenting "the army's strategic perspective in the global war on terrorism".

The study found that the Pentagon spent the most on media contracts, worth $1.1 billion. And all that money was before the new Rumsfeld plan.

(Inter Press Service)

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