The Pentagon's Vanity Press

By JOHN TIERNEY

New York Times

December 3, 2005

Now that the Pentagon has been outed for planting articles in Iraqi newspapers, we're faced with one of the easiest questions of the year: Is it proper for the government to manipulate public opinion through self-serving, one-sided journalism?

Of course not. In a free democratic society, biased journalism is the responsibility of billionaires, foundations and the reporters they buy.

The private sector could have done it cheaply and discreetly, but the Pentagon made a mess of it. It was caught not only planting articles but also - even more humiliating - paying newspapers for the privilege. The first rule of vanity publishing is to hide the money.

The Pentagon may want to blame this fiasco on the Lincoln Group, the Washington-based firm it hired to place the articles. P.R. pros are supposed to get stuff in the paper without straight payola. But in this case, they have an excuse.

If you've ever been a freelance writer, you know that trying to get an editor in America to accept an unsolicited article is humiliating enough. But the scribes at the Lincoln Group had to pitch stories to editors in a foreign country, and they weren't even hustling their own stuff. The stories were concocted by those masters of prose and narrative: Pentagon bureaucrats.

The Lincoln freelancers were offering stories with headlines like "The Sands Are Blowing Toward a Democratic Iraq," as Jeff Gerth reported in The New York Times. Gerth shared with me (free of charge) a stack of other stories flogged by the Lincoln Group, and after reading them I have new sympathy for these freelancers.

With a couple of exceptions - notably a piece headlined "Iraqi Forces Capture Al Qaeda Fighters Crawling Like Dogs" - this material is Mission Impossible. Try getting someone to take a piece called "Iraqi Soldiers Improve Leadership Skills" or "Renovated Facilities Help to Bolster Security in Mosul." As I read them, I kept imagining rejection letters like:

Thank you for the opportunity to consider "Iraqis Electing the Future." It thoroughly differentiates the Coalition of Independent and Nonpartisan Election Monitors (CINEM) from the Civic Coalition for Free Elections (CCFE) and the Election Violence Education and Resolution project (EVER). Unfortunately, though, it's not quite right for our target audience.

Or:

We were intrigued by the headline of "An Iraqi Success Story." But we found the opening rather slow - "Telecommunications is arguably the sector most affected by the 2003 liberation of Iraq" - and then got bogged down in the key paragraph:

"And while there were initial disputes over the process that awarded Egypt-based Orascom Telecommunications (Iraqna), Kuwait-based MTC Atheer and Kurdish-owned Asiacell the first 24-month Iraqi cellphone licenses in December 2003, their growth can only be cited as an Iraqi success story."

Perhaps a rewrite could "punch up" the story to suit our needs, but we fear it still might not work. Have you considered a specialized business publication?

Or:

There is much to admire in your article on the Iraqi Security Forces. You memorably describe them "moving across the desert sands like the wind." But you do not introduce us to any of these "heroic" figures or describe their activities beyond a list of the weapons they seized.

You write that these soldiers "fight for freedom, wherever there is trouble," a revelation that would indeed be newsworthy to our readers across Iraq, not to mention the American military advisers. But our readers would remain skeptical unless you could provide more evidence.

After a few of these letters, any freelancer would look for a new strategy. Pentagon payola would be the only way to maintain your self-respect.

I hope the Pentagon is getting out of the news business. But if the would-be journalists can't help themselves, they should at least do a good job of propaganda. No more stories headlined "Border Security Is in Full Swing on All Levels."

Go tabloid and start making money for a change:

"Osama's Orgy: The Tape Al Jazeera Won't Show You"

"Study: Handling I.E.D.'s Linked to Sterility"

"Drunken Zarqawi Cavorts in Vegas With Jessica Simpson"

"Iraqi Security Forces Cheer Tot With Kitten Rescue"

"Blackout Bliss: 101 Fun Things to Do When the Lights Go Out."

"Bomber's Report From Afterlife: No Virgins!"