WASHINGTON -- When I heard that our government has secretly paid Iraqi reporters and newspapers to report good news about the war, it only made me wonder how bad the real news must be.
That's the trouble with pay-for-good-press schemes. The truth has a nagging little way of coming out, causing more damage than the chicanery gained.
Just ask my friend Armstrong Williams. You may recall how the public relations executive took a big fall as a conservative commentator after revelations of his lucrative contract with the Bush administration to promote its educational policies.
When I called to ask how he felt about the new Iraq revelations, he said, after a long pause, "Very unpleasant."
Small wonder. A Senate committee is looking into Los Angeles Times reports that our military has been paying the Lincoln Group, a Washington "strategic communications" firm, to translate articles written by our military and place them in Baghdad newspapers, sometimes for a fee and without revealing the true source of the stories.
Lincoln operatives have posed as freelance reporters or advertising executives to deliver their "stories," the Times reported. Knight Ridder later reported that Lincoln paid about a dozen Iraqi journalists, called the "Baghdad Press Club," as much as $200 a month to produce positive pieces.
When will they learn? As Mr. Williams observed, good journalism and secret government contracts don't mix. "Once people find out," he said, "everything you say is going to be questioned. No matter what you say, they're going to wonder if you're just saying it because you believe it or because you're being paid to say it."
The episode also illustrates how reluctantly the administration is learning a painful public relations lesson, he said: "Once you lose your credibility, it's a long, hard road to get it back."
More people at the Pentagon and in the Bush administration need to learn the lessons Mr. Williams has picked up the hard way.
Yet when asked about it during a press briefing, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, was decidedly unapologetic. He responded by quoting a letter from Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that declared, "Remember, half the battlefield is the battlefield of the media."
Then General Lynch said, "And what Zarqawi is doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community. We don't lie. We don't need to lie."
But why lie when you can spin? The Pentagon, you may recall, considered creating a disinformation operation to be called the Office of Strategic Influence before the Iraq invasion. The idea reportedly was scrapped out of concern that its manufactured news might blow back and fool Americans. But judging by the Iraq propaganda campaign, we're not nearly as worried about fooling Iraqis.
As a former Army public information specialist in my youth, I am hardly naive about the strategic uses of propaganda. But your propaganda is severely neutralized if people don't even believe you when you're telling the truth.
That's what we learned during an earlier war when I was a young draftee in the Pentagon's Defense Information School, then in Indianapolis. Believe it or not, we were well instructed in the highest ethics. The best response to a lie, we were told, is the truth, not spin. Otherwise, when the truth inevitably comes out, people inevitably will wonder why you went to so much trouble to hide it.
Those were great lessons. Trouble is, once you're assigned to a unit, your commander often will have other ideas that sometimes will lead to a public relations disaster. That's what the cash-for-journalists scheme looks like now. It's not only embarrassing but also dangerous to our democracy-spreading mission.
Trust in democracy requires not only a trust in the public's right to know the truth but also an abiding faith in their baloney detectors.
Truth inevitably comes out, in true democracies, and once you lose your credibility, it's hard to get it back.
Besides, before you try to sell others on the value of democracy, it helps to believe in it yourself.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.