Global Policy Forum

The Best (PR) War Ever


By Bill Berkowitz*

Inter Press Service
September 15, 2006

In a recent speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, "The enemy is so much better at communicating. I wish we were better at countering that, because the constant drumbeat of things they say - all of which are not true - is harmful." Later, during a question-and-answer session at Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada, Rumsfeld complained about terrorist groups that have "media committees" that "manipulate the media". "What bothers me the most is how clever the enemy is," he said. "They are actively manipulating the media in this country ... They can lie with impunity."

During the three-plus years since the United States invaded Iraq, the administration of President George W Bush has repeatedly criticized the media for reporting only the "bad" news from Iraq. Bush himself has frequently maintained that the consequences of the media's preoccupation with negative stories demoralizes the troops on the ground, and undercuts support for the war at home. There were few complaints from the administration at the beginning of the war when embedded and compliant media filed mostly positive reports.

In their new book titled The Best War Ever: Lies, Damned Lies, and the Mess in Iraq (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006), which was to go on sale on Thursday, co-authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton assert that television reporters "actually underplayed rather than overplayed the negative" in their reporting from Iraq, while "newspaper coverage during the subsequent occupation has also been sanitized". Stauber and Rampton cite a study by researchers at George Washington University that analyzed 1,820 stories on the five main US television networks, as well as the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera, and found that "all of the American media largely shied away from showing visuals of coalition, Iraqi military, or civilian casualties. Despite advanced technologies offering reporters the chance to transmit the reality of war in real time, reporters chose instead to present a largely bloodless conflict to viewers even when they did broadcast during firefights."

Print journalists didn't perform much better. A May 2005 review by Los Angeles Times writer James Rainey of the coverage of a six-month period - when 559 US and other Western allies died in Iraq - by six major US newspapers and two popular news magazines found that "readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, St Louis Post-Dispatch, and Washington Post did not see a single picture of a dead serviceman".

"Rumsfeld's complaints are an interesting twist of the truth, since the reality is that the US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on media campaigns that have been spectacularly ineffective," Rampton said in a telephone interview. "That the enemy has been more effective in communicating its message to the world is not so much a reflection of their media savvy as it is on the ineffective message of the United States. "You can't expect a better messaging strategy to compensate for the fact that the underlining policy is based on falsehoods and deliberate deception," Rampton said.

As the occupation of Iraq proved unmanageable and the total number of dead and wounded US military personnel mounted, stories about the revamping of schoolhouses and the building of soccer fields were given a back seat by the media.

With things continuing to spiral out of control in Iraq, the Bush administration has once again decided that it's a public relations problem; a question of propaganda, not policy. Around the same time that Rumsfeld was on the road railing about anti-war appeasers and confused critics who were enabling terrorism and how much better the terrorists were at handling the media, the Washington Post reported that "US military leaders in Baghdad have put out for bid a two-year, [US]$20 million public relations contract that calls for extensive monitoring of US and Middle Eastern media in an effort to promote more positive coverage of news from Iraq".

According to the Post's Walter Pincus, the "contract calls for assembling a database of selected news stories and assessing their tone as part of a program to provide 'public relations products' that would improve coverage of the military command's performance, according to a statement-of-work attached to the proposal". Pincus pointed out that the proposal "calls in part for extensive monitoring and analysis of Iraqi, Middle Eastern and American media, [and] is designed to help the coalition forces understand ‘the communications environment'. Its goal is to 'develop communication strategies and tactics, identify opportunities, and execute events ... to effectively communicate Iraqi government and coalition's goals, and build support among our strategic audiences in achieving these goals'," according to a statement publicly available through the FBO Daily's website.

"From what I've seen, the thing about this proposal that most concerns me is the component calling for the monitoring of the media, especially when journalists will be rated as to how favorable they are toward US policy objectives," Rampton pointed out. "Monitoring journalists and maintaining a database of their stories raises a number of serious questions: Who knows where that database will wind up in two years or five years from now? What kind of retribution might be exacted against those reporters whose work is seen as unfavorable to US policy?"

The Bush administration's new maneuver appears to be deja vu. As early as September 2003, less than six months after the invasion of Iraq, it determined that the best way to sell its policy was to make its highest-ranking officials - including the president - available for safe media opportunities. Bush gave the Fox News Channel a 30-minute interview and a 20-minute on-camera tour of the White House while then-national security adviser and current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on the American Broadcasting Co's Nightline and gave interviews to Fox Television's Brit Hume, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.

A later campaign was aimed at sidestepping the national media entirely by dispatching administration spokespeople to talk only to local news outlets. Another campaign had the administration hiring the Lincoln Group, a high-powered public relations firm, to plant positive stories in the Iraqi news media and to pay friendly Iraqi journalists monthly stipends.

"In the first chapter of The Best War Ever, we discuss the failures of recent attempts by the US to plant stories in the Iraq media," Rampton noted. "You can't throw money at a messaging problem and expect to be effective when the people you are trying to persuade are deeply outraged at what you are doing."

Over the course of the war and the occupation of Iraq, even the parameters of what constitutes "good" news has changed dramatically. Early on, the "good" news consisted of reports on the rebuilding of schools and hospitals, the delivery of new fire trucks to a small town, or the opening of soccer field for Iraqi children. These days, the "good" news has more to do with whether Iraqi troops have the stuff necessary to militarily confront sectarian militias, whether attacks by insurgents have dropped from 50 a day to 25, whether daily Iraqi civilian deaths are in the dozens instead of the hundreds, and whether the situation has descended into a full-blown civil war or whether a civil war is still in the offing.

To paraphrase bluesman Albert King's song "Born Under a Bad Sign", "If it wasn't for bad news, there would be no news at all."

About the Author: Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the US right wing.

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