Part of a Series
Fake news comes in several different varieties: There’s the funny kind, as practiced by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert; the less funny kind done by Saturday Night Live; and the potentially illegal variety made by the Pentagon.
Last week’s revelation in The Los Angeles Times that the U.S. military has been “secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops in an effort to burnish the image of the U.S. mission in Iraq” received front page treatment from both the Times and The New York Times, and has lit up the blogosphere. The propaganda, written by "information operations" troops and placed in Iraqi news outlets by a PR firm – the Lincoln Group – contracted by the military “present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments, officials said,” according to the LA Times.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the military trying to plant stories in foreign media outlets. Three years ago, the Pentagon shuttered its Office of Strategic Influence after it was discovered that it was seeking to plant false news stories in the international press. While many were rightfully outraged, including (officially) the White House (don’t hold your breath for a full investigation, as Scott McClellan promised), other right-wingers applauded the move. Just a few days after the LA Times broke the story, Walter Jajko, a professor of defense studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C, wrote in the same paper that "it’s about time" the American military sold fake news to the Iraqi press. Jajko hearkened back to a time when the American government regularly planted stories in the international press, noting that at one time "the CIA owned or subsidized, at various times, more than 50 newspapers, news services, radio stations, periodicals and other communications facilities, most of them overseas.”
Thing is, Jajko doesn’t have to look back to the 1950s and ‘60s for the golden age of government-sponsored news. In a little-noted story in PR Week just weeks before this latest story broke, the magazine wrote that the U.S. government had contracted with another outside company, 3 Roads Communications, for a two-year deal to “continue developing international broadcast products designed to present US policies, culture, and institutions in a better light." The agency on the receiving end of this propaganda blitz? The Voice of America, which is headed up by the Broadcasting Board of Governors, chaired by none other than the recently ousted chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Kenneth Tomlinson. (For more on him, see my Nation column HERE)
While the outrage voiced by so many in the legitimate media was right on the money, most (excluding Jajko), seem to have forgotten that paying to play isn’t a new concept at the highest reaches of the American government. We can look back to a piece in the September/October 1974 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, in which Stuart H. Loory reported on the uncovering of the CIA’s long history of buying journalism. He wrote that in November 1973, it was discovered that the CIA had “contracts with some 30 journalists (by the agency’s own count) who work overseas as stringers, free-lance writers and full-time correspondents for small publications.” What’s more, he found that the CIA made efforts to plant “false or misleading news stories” in news services across the globe, that CIA requests for information, usually wrapped up in cash donations, were made to U.S. newsmen working in countries such as Spain, Italy and in Eastern Europe, and that the CIA had “access to information in the home offices of some large U.S. news organizations.” On top of all this, for seven years during the Cold War, the CIA owned outright 40 percent of the Daily American, a newspaper in Rome. Called “Operation Mockingbird,” the program was put in place by the CIA in the late 1940s to influence both foreign and domestic media.
As evidence of this, according to a March 2001 New York Times article by Tim Weiner, the CIA had a “propaganda plan” as part of the 1961 Bay of Pigs operation to place news items “directly on the wire service tickers.” “It has been known since the 1970’s,” Weiner wrote, “that in the cold war the c=I.A. had a handful of ‘assets,’ or agents, in place at some news organizations like The Associated Press and United Press International, particularly in foreign bureaus.” Documents declassified in 2001 proved that the CIA “could essentially dictate articles and have them sent around the world.”
Carl Bernstein, writing in Rolling Stone in 1977, found that in the 25 years previous to his piece, roughly 400 American journalists had secretly carried out assignments for the CIA, according to documents unearthed at the Agency’s headquarters. Bernstein found that many media executives “lent their cooperation” to the Agency, allegedly including William Paley of CBS, Henry Luce of Time Inc., Arthur Sulzberger of The New York Times, and James Copley of the Copley News Services.
Where does all this lead us? Unfortunately, not to comprehensive news coverage of the latest pay-to-play scandal. The institutional memory of the public is often a short one, and many of these facts have long been assigned to the dustbin of history, but it would serve the public interest if reporters would look into the background of stories like this, if only to situate them in their proper historical context.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His most recent, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, was just published in paperback by Penguin