Whether journalist or Pentagon spokesman, credibility is everything

April 07, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

FORT MEADE — Credibility is everything in our business."

That's what I told the latest batch of military public affairs specialists to graduate from the Pentagon's 12-week course for enlisted men and women in journalism, photojournalism and public affairs.

The Defense Information School (DINFOS) at Fort George G. Meade invited me to speak to the graduating class after officials there found out that I, too, was a graduate, in 1970, when DINFOS was still in Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis and I, at the time, was its only draftee.

Returning to DINFOS in this new wartime generation brought what Yogi Berra might have called "dM-ijM-` vu all over again." In my day, the Vietnam War was not going well. The Nixon administration and its surrogates were blaming the media for "losing" it. Now, the Bush administration and its surrogates blame the media for the mess in Iraq.

"For every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq that's hard to capture on the evening news," President Bush said during a news conference March 21.

Earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney complained on CBS' Face the Nation that "there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad." Yup, constant car bombs do create a "constant sort of perception."

Of course, there's nothing new about leaders criticizing the media, including the military media.

Yet, having experienced life on the military side of the media fence, I appreciate the frustrations expressed by Gayle Taylor, the wife of a military broadcast journalist, during Mr. Bush's town hall forum March 22 in Wheeling, W.Va. She said she wished the networks would broadcast some of the cheery video stories of progress similar to what her husband had produced while stationed in Iraq. Instead, she complained, the media "just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don't agree with you and what you're doing."

The line brought predictable applause from the crowd, as if bashing the media supports our troops. I think reporting the truth supports our troops, and sometimes the truth is pretty grim.

In Vietnam, the "ground truth," as intelligence agents call unspun facts, was that we lost the war because of flawed policy decisions, the weaknesses of the Saigon regime and the lack of a clear plan for victory. When those flaws became apparent back home, support for the war dimmed.

Now those same flaws show up in Iraq from time to time, and blaming the messenger won't fix them.

Neither will cash.

If Iraq's fledgling democracy has a new enemy, in my view, it is the Bush administration's casual attitude toward secret payments that the Lincoln Group, a U.S. public relations contractor, made to Iraqi editors to publish pro-U.S. news stories as if they had come from ordinary journalists, not American flacks.

Of course, the problem with the Lincoln Group story, first reported in December by the Los Angeles Times, is that the existence of possible bribes undermines the credibility of any pro-U.S. story by Iraqi journalists, including the legitimate ones published by journalists who have not taken bribes.

Yet, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently praised the propaganda effort in a newspaper column as a clever use of "nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people."

Accurate? According to whom? Well, the Bush administration, of course. Why would any administration steer us wrong?

"Credibility is everything," I told the DINFOS grads. "You will be judged by the respect you pay to facts."

That's true whether you're a reporter or a public affairs spokesman. Journalists quickly learn which spokesmen they can trust. The public quickly learns which journalists they can trust. Lose that trust and you might as well leave the business.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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