By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009
The U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere regularly assesses the content and tone of the work of individual reporters to prepare for trips and interviews by those reporters, according to defense and military officials.
But the officials denied that the analysis has been used to exclude journalists from embedding with U.S. military units in combat zones or to bar them from interviewing military personnel.
A controversy has arisen in recent days over media work performed for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan by the Rendon Group, a contractor that classifies the content of stories by reporters as positive, negative or neutral in relation to military objectives.
Rendon has disputed reports that its media analysis, under a 2009 contract to support the public affairs office of the U.S. command in Afghanistan, is based on ranking reporters or aimed at manipulating their coverage. Rendon's role in compiling background profiles on reporters for the military was first revealed this week in articles by the Stars and Stripes newspaper, which said the profiles were being used to screen reporters.
In a statement, Rendon said its analysis "is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist's inquiries" and is not developed by "ranking reporters."
The company has been investigated by the Defense Department after some members of Congress said it was hired to create an information campaign to sway the public to support the Iraq war, but the investigation did not support the allegations. Rendon was also involved in an effort to have Iraqi publications print articles written by military personnel.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that Rendon's work in Afghanistan is not used to exclude reporters from embedding with the military and that the only standard the Pentagon uses to measure a news story is accuracy.
He acknowledged that gathering background data about reporters is common. "Everyone does a certain amount of media analysis in order to prepare individuals for interviews," he said.
Military public affairs officers who have worked in recent years with reporters in Iraq, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere said they had personally prepared such analyses.
Lt. Col. Jose Garcia, senior team leader for the Public Affairs Qualification Course at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, said that while working as a public affairs officer in Iraq he regularly gathered information on reporters' backgrounds, their likely questions and "angle" in advance of interviews with his unit. Garcia said he gathered the information by surfing the Web for the reporter's articles or biography, or by enquiring with military headquarters.
But Garcia said such information was used only to anticipate questions and possibly build rapport with the journalist. "I never turned anyone away," he said. "I encouraged my boss to talk to everyone."
In some cases, however, officers have rated individual reporters in terms of how beneficial they were to the military mission. In one unit in Iraq, every visiting reporter was preceded by a document that classified him or her by assigning a color, with red for negative, amber for neutral and green for positive. Another unit prepared a map with the same color-coding for articles written by embedded reporters.
"The bottom line was: We think that this visit will be positive, negative, or neutral," said one military public affairs officer who served at Guantanamo Bay, where the military prepared such assessments on each visiting reporter.
"If we thought a reporter was negative, we'd do more training to prepare for a combative interview," said the officer, who served in Guantanamo in 2007.