Sunday, December 04, 2005

Payola and the Iraqi Press

I spent the day looking into the issue of the Pentagon paying to have America-friendly news items reported in the Iraqi news. The problem is, I could not find enough information to draw a clear conclusion about the ethics of this particular practice.

According to the news reports that I read, some of the stories carried identification saying that the stories were paid for. Clearly, in a country with a free press, if somebody wants to buy a paid advertisement in a newspaper, there is nothing wrong with doing this.

Senator McCain stated that, if the stories are true, then there is nothing wrong with the military getting the stories out there. Senator McCain is correct as far as it does -- the military does have the right to get the story out there. However, there is a right and a wrong way to get the story out there.

The problem arises when the fact that this is an advertisement is not reported. This leaves the impression that the readers are looking at an impartial news story. This would be wrong. However, the news reports that I found could not identify who left the material off or why they did so. Was it done intentionally, or was it done on purpose? Is this an act of deception, or is this an act of negligence?

The Duty to Correct Errors

I can say this much: If there was somebody in the Pentagon or with the Lincoln Group truly concerned with doing the right thing then, as soon as they knew of a story being published without the proper disclaimer, they would have then made sure that the oversight is corrected. They would have said to themselves, “The integrity of this operation is important, and that integrity requires that we clearly identify paid advertisements from objective news.” Apparently, there was nobody in the area who thought it was important to make sure that these errors were corrected.

That’s a problem. That indicates a problem with the moral character of those who were involved in the process. Apparently, they did not care about the facts that the disclaimers were absent, because I saw no evidence that they took steps to correct the incidents that they knew about and no steps to make sure that “it does not happen again.” These are actions that people of good moral character would have taken.

Corrupting the Press

Another issue that comes to mind is that the Americans are supposed to be trying to establish a stable democracy in Iraq. A stable democracy requires a press that the people can trust. The military seems to have been in on a process of corrupting the Iraqi media. They had discovered the presence of journalists in Iraq who were on the take. These journalists were accepting or rejecting stories based on the “kickback” they received by those who wanted the stories reported.

Imagine the noise that would have been made in this country if we were to discover that news reporters – not commentators, but people who actually make the claim that they are reporting the news – were accepting “payola” by those who wanted certain stories covered in a particular way.

“Payola” is a term used to describe a tendency in the 1950s for radio disk jockeys to take payoffs in exchange for giving certain albums additional play time. It is legal for disk jockeys to accept money in exchange for playing specific songs. They simply have to report the fact that the air time is sponsored, and not a part of the station's normal play list.

The same rules should apply to putting stories in the Iraqi news. I am applying it to journalists who take money to give certain news stories extra play time. In the 1950s, Congress asserted that it was a moral disgrace for radio disk jockeys to be involved in this corrupt practice. It is hard to argue that “payola” was wrong in the 1950s, but that it is a legitimate practice Iraq today.

Note that I am not saying that it is wrong for the military to pay to get extra news coverage for American-friendly news. The problem does not rest with paying to get this information reported, but in failing to be honest and above-board with what was going on. The problem is with rewarding corrupt journalists, rather than helping to remove corruption from the journalism so that the Iraqis could be left with a free press that it could actually trust.

If this type of activity is considered legitimate – if hunting for Iraqi journalists willing to take a payment for the purpose of planting a story is the right thing to do – I have to wonder if these people would consider it wrong to pay a legislator to deliver American-friendly votes in the Iraqi government. There are some things, in a free country, that should not be sold to the highest bidder.

The Wrong Tool for the Job

One of the items that came to me in reading this is to question whether this is the case of using the wrong tool for the job. The military’s purpose is in winning conflicts. The task of winning wars is a messy business. Because of this, the moral constraints placed on military operations are not as strict as one would place on civilian operations. In a war, the army can drive a tank across your yard (or even through your house) without stopping to ask permission. In a military mindset, planting stories can easily be seen as just another tool to use in winning the war.

The ideas that I raised above – that of a duty to identify and correct errors in properly identifying stories as paid advertisements, and the problems inherent in corrupting the press, are not the types of issues that military planners typically concern themselves with. I can see this practice as “standard operating procedure” when dealing with an enemy press in an attempt to score important victories against an enemy.

The problem is, they do not fit this type of situation, where the task at hand is to establish and defend a stable government. In this type of situation, even the military should consider itself to be under tighter moral constraints. Otherwise, it ends up corrupting and destroying the very institutions it is supposed to be protecting.

The American military should be protecting and defending a free press in Iraq, not financing the corruption of that institution.

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