TOPICS: Rumsfeld declares war on bad press

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has signalled that he plans to intensify a campaign to influence global media coverage of the US, a move that is likely to heighten the debate over press freedom and propaganda-free reporting.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last week, Rumsfeld said that Washington will launch a new drive to spread and defend US views, especially in the so-called war on terror. He cited the Cold War-era initiatives of the US Information Agency and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, widely viewed outside the US as sophisticated propaganda outlets, as a model for the new offensive.

If similar efforts over the past five years are any example, the campaign is likely to take place in two main areas — the US media and the press in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where Washington sees its strategic influence as pivotal.

On Tuesday, Rumsfeld also said that the Pentagon is “reviewing” its practice of paying to plant good news stories in the Iraqi news media, contradicting a previous assertion that the controversial propaganda programme had been halted.

Critics here say the new media blitz joins a long list of decisions by the Bush administration, such as ordering the National Security Agency to spy on US citizens without warrants, monitoring library records, and compiling databases on US citizens who disagree with the administration’s policies, that are leading the country down an authoritarian path — ironically, one that is not far from Middle Eastern regimes that have long clamped down on freedom of expression and independent journalism.

And they note that the US mainstream media already tends towards a conservative interpretation of events, with scant regard for opposing views. According to a study released this month by the US-based media organisation Media Matters for America, conservative voices have considerably outnumbered liberal voices for nine years.

The report analysed the content of influential shows such as NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’ Face the Nation, and ABC’s This Week. It classified each of the nearly 7,000 guests who appeared during the 1997-2005 period as either Democrat, Republican, conservative, progressive, or neutral. It found that guests opposing the Bush administration’s policies, during both terms, were given only enough space to maintain a veneer of fairness and accuracy. Congressional opponents of the Iraq war, for example, were mostly missing from the Sunday shows.

Rumsfeld recommended that the media be part of every move in the so-called war on terror, including an increase in Internet operations, the establishment of 24-hour press operations centres, and training military personnel in other channels of communication. He said the government would work to hire more media experts from the private sector and that there will be less emphasis on the print press. But to many independent media analysts, the Bush administration has too often confused propaganda with facts and information. — IPS