Pentagon launches Iraq PR campaign

Move to counter reports it deems misleading

November 02, 2006|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- As concern in the Defense Department mounts over increasingly negative coverage of the Iraq war, the Pentagon has launched a rapid-response public relations effort to rebut news stories that officials believe are inaccurate or misleading.

Although all presidential administrations have been critical of the news media, most have avoided regular, continuing public fights with journalists. But in recent weeks, the Bush administration has shown a willingness to fight over facts and reporters' analysis of news events.

The Defense Department's efforts echo a White House initiative called "Setting the Record Straight," which counters news reports by accusing reporters of inaccuracies or taking quotations out of context.

Some of the first results of the Pentagon response is a new "For the Record" section of the Defense Department's Web site, www.defenselink.mil. The site features critiques of a Washington Post article, a Newsweek cover story and two New York Times editorials - as well as a list of "Five Myths about the War on Terror" perpetuated by the news media.

Pentagon officials say the effort is not in response to negative coverage of the war but rather an attempt to adapt to new technologies and find ways to communicate with the American public and international audiences.

"We've always thought it is important to go out and correct the record," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "If we are doing it more aggressively, it is because we understand in this information age, it is easy for wrong information to be perpetuated."

The effort shows Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's frustration with increasingly negative coverage of the war, said Marvin Kalb, Washington-based senior fellow for Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. But Kalb said that as long as the war is going badly, the news coverage is sure to be negative.

"It is not a matter of improving communication, it is a matter of the reality of the war," Kalb said. "The effective response has to be in the policy you pursue, not in the way the policy is covered.

"Rumsfeld is not the first government official who turns on the news at night and throws a bottle of scotch at the TV," Kalb said.

Pentagon officials said they have hired staff for the effort but refused to say how many people would be hired or transferred. They also declined to say how much was going to be spent on the effort.

In an Oct. 3 memo released this week, Dorrance Smith, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, outlined four focus areas for his department: distributing information on new media forms such as podcasts and You Tube; increased television and radio bookings; better assistance to military analysts and other "surrogates;" and the rapid-response group.

Pentagon press secretary Eric Ruff said the changes were part of an effort to improve upon the D+ rating that Rumsfeld has given the public affairs operation.

"We're trying to do better than a D+," Ruff told reporters this week. "Al-Qaida has demonstrated time and again how they can use the Internet. We are, very frankly, behind the curve."

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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