The Freest Press Money Can Buy?

Amid undenied charges that the Pentagon is paying Iraqi journalists to write "good news" stories about the country’s progress, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has announced a new international exchange program for journalists named for famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and emphasizing "the democratic principles that guided Mr. Murrow’s practice of his craft – integrity and ethics and courage and social responsibility."

"We all know that the bedrock pillar of a free society is a free press and that it is crucial for the foundation of any democracy," Rice said.

The new initiative – the Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program – is a partnership of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the nonpartisan Aspen Institute, and the journalism schools of six U.S. universities.

It will invite up to 100 international media professionals to visit leading journalism schools here, "honing their skills, sharing ideas, and gaining firsthand understanding of American society and democratic institutions," the Institute said.

The goal, it said, "is not only to inform the journalists about the United States, but also to promote journalistic freedom and excellence around the world."

Edward R. Murrow is best known for his radio reporting from London during World War Two, and later for exposing on television the demagoguery of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose communist-hunting in the 1950s led to his censure by the Senate.

Unveiling the program, Rice said, "The Department of State is determined to forge partnerships with our private sector so that Americans of all stripes, all traditions, all ethnic groups, and also all walks of life might be able to help to carry the story of democratic progress and the progress of liberty."

Announcement of the new program was strangely juxtaposed with the furor surrounding recent disclosures that the Pentagon hired a public relations firm called the Lincoln Group to pay Iraqi journalists to publish articles written by the U.S. military that put a positive spin on developments in Iraq. The published articles do not identify the U.S. military as the source.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that U.S. Marines, frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the mainstream news media, had invited a retired soldier who writes a weblog about the military to travel to Iraq to cover the war from the front lines.

The blogger, Bill Roggio, a computer technician from New Jersey, raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment, and body armor. A few weeks later, he was posting dispatches from a remote outpost in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Iraq’s insurgency.

Roggio told the Washington Post in an e-mail, "I was disenchanted with the reporting on the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror and felt there was much to the conflict that was missed."

Roggio, who is currently stationed with U.S. Marines along the Syrian border, said, "What is often seen as an attempt at balanced reporting results in underreporting of the military’s success and strategy and an overemphasis on the strategically minor success of the jihadists or insurgents."

After military officials in Baghdad said Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, offered him an affiliation. His weblog is called "The Fourth Rail."

At the same time, the Post disclosed that the U.S. military has paid to place favorable coverage on television stations in three Iraqi cities, according to an Army spokesman.

The military, he told the newspaper, has given one of the stations about $35,000 in equipment, is building a new facility for $300,000, and pays $600 a week for a weekly program that focuses positively on U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The Post said a local U.S. Army National Guard commander "acknowledged that his officers ‘suggest’ stories to the station and review the content of the program in a weekly meeting before it is aired."

Though the commander, a lieutenant colonel whose name is being withheld because he is based in the same area, denied that payments were made to the station, the Iraqi television producer said his staff got $1,000 a month from the military. It does not disclose any financial relationship to viewers. There was no explanation of the discrepancy between that amount and the figure of $600 per week, the Post added.

Numerous opinion polls in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East have reported that people are skeptical of U.S. motives and tactics because of what they perceive as a discrepancy between what Washington says and what it does.

The State Department’s new international journalism program may have to confront the same issue. Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California (USC) said, "Democracy cannot work without the free flow of information and ideas that is made possible through an independent and effective press."

"All of our schools expect the international journalists to learn from our courses – and we all expect our students to learn from our visitors," he said.

In addition to USC, the journalism schools involved in the new program are the University of Kentucky, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas at Austin.

As part of the Murrow program, the Institute is planning a major symposium in April featuring prominent working reporters, commentators, editors, and columnists discussing practical and ethical issues inherent in the journalistic process. It will also include key government spokespeople, who will discuss the relationship between media and policy-making.

Among the themes of the symposium will be the importance of diversity of opinion, an informed public, and challenges facing journalists around the world.

But one observer sees the Iraq "payola" issue and the new Murrow program as "an example of the difference between democracy in theory and practice."

Professor Beau Grosscup of the University of California at Chico told IPS, "The same people who set up a program to promote ‘independent journalism’ are the same folks who defend funding public relations firms, conservative think-tank-connected jingoist individuals, and embedded journalists as ‘independent’ media."

"It’s all about public relations and media control. Joseph Goebbels [Adolph Hitler’s propaganda minister] would be proud."

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.