The Pentagon has set out to win at least three wars, the one on the battlefield of the moment, the so-called war for hearts and minds in the countries under attack and “the media war.” To translate further, we rely on blunt diplobully Richard Holbrooke, a Balkans negotiator and former UN ambassador, who, true to form, doesn’t mince words. “Call it public diplomacy or public affairs, or psychological warfare or,” he pauses, to cut through this fog, “if you really want to be blunt–propaganda.”
IO is an acronym we haven’t seen too much in the flow of reporting from every media pore over the course of our “holy war” on terror. But “I” and “O” are two letters that have great importance among those charged with steering and massaging media coverage to insure that it puts the military in the best possible light.
“IO,” short for Information Operations, is the Pentagon’s Ministry of Truth in the best “1984” sense of the term. Now it is time for us to focus in, and eye-o, open our eyes to how this increasingly sophisticated military science works and why it has been so effective in shaping our images and ideas about a faraway war on many fronts.
There is an excellent exposé about this by former Associated Press correspondent Maud S. Beelman, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center of Public Integrity, in a provocative issue of Nieman Reports, the journal of Harvard’s Nieman Fellows in Journalism. (Vol. 55 # 4 Winter 2001)
“IO groups together information functions ranging from public affairs to military deception and psychological operations or PSYOP,” she writes. “What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell, now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.”
An August 1996 U.S. Army field manual, 100-6, puts it pointblank: “Information is the currency of victory.” To help decode this, let us turn to Major Gary Pounder, the chief of intelligence plans and presentations at the College of Aerospace Doctrine Research and Education at Maxwell Air Force Base. (That’s a mouthful. Somehow I doubt this college of high-tech war-fighting study mounts a cheerleading squad!) “IO practitioners,” he explains, “must recognize that much of the information war will be waged in the public media.” The military thus needs public affairs specialists “to become full partners in the IO planning and execution process developing the skills and expertise required to win the media war.”
Fighting On Three Fronts
There you have it. The Pentagon has set out to win at least three wars, the one on the battlefield of the moment, the so-called war for hearts and minds in the countries under attack and “the media war.” To translate further, we rely on blunt diplobully Richard Holbrooke, a Balkans negotiator and former UN ambassador, who, true to form, doesn’t mince words. “Call it public diplomacy or public affairs, or psychological warfare or,” he pauses, to cut through this fog, “if you really want to be blunt–propaganda.”
So let’s be blunt: IO is a way of obscuring and sanitizing that negative-sounding term “propaganda” so that our “information warriors” can do their thing with a minimum of public attention as they seek to engineer friendly write ups and cumulative impact. They do this by pursing several strategies:
1. Overloading the Media. IO operates in some conflicts by providing too much information. During the Kosovo War, briefers at NATO’s headquarters in Belgium boasted that this was the key to information control. “They would gorge the media with information,” Beelman writes, quoting one as saying, “‘When you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story.'” How’s that for being blunt?
2. Ideological Appeals. We saw an appeal to patriotism and safeguarding the national interest in the fall when Condaleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials persuaded the networks to kill bin Laden videos and other Al-Jazeera work. This is nothing new. All administrations try to seduce and co-opt the media. Back in 1950, President Harry S. Truman appealed to top newspaper editors to back the cold war with a “campaign for truth” in which “our great public information channels,” as Secretary of State Dean Acheson referred to the media, would enlist. Nancy Berhard, author of “U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960″(Cambridge University Press 1999), says “none of the assembled newsmen blanched” at Truman’s “enlistment to propagandize.”
It is this ideological conformity and world view that makes it relatively easy for a well-oiled and sophisticated IO propaganda machine to keep the U.S. media in line, with the avid cooperation of the corporate sector, which owns and controls most media outlets. Some of those companies, such as NBC parent General Electric, have long been a core component of that nexus of shared interests that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. As Noam Chomsky and others have argued, that complex has expanded into a military, industrial and MEDIA complex, in which IO is but one refinement.
3. Spinning Information. We see this every day at Pentagon briefings where what’s really happening is, at best, secondary. For example, the weekly Washington Post edition of January 14-20, 2002 tells how reporters who scoured the bombed-out ruins of the town of Qalai Niazi in Afghanistan found an estimated 80 civilians dead, yet little or no evidence of Taliban or Al Qaeda forces. The villagers they interviewed insisted “there was nothing of the Taliban here.” Yet most of the media minimized their own findings and instead relied on pronouncements by Pentagon officials who insisted that they were right to bomb the village to smithereens. In Washington, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld gave the story what struck me as an IO spin: “There were multiple intelligence sources that qualified the target,” he insisted. No reporter challenged him to produce evidence. Rummy’s words were enough, apparently because he is so personable, in a aw-shucks kind of way. In the end, newspapers like the Post always seem to conclude that what their reporters saw is insufficient. “There is much that is not known — and maybe never will be —about what happened on that December night,” concludes Edward Cody, who filed the dispatch. Translation: No one is to blame, especially not the U.S.
4. Withholding Information. Sorry, I am not at liberty to explain. But do I really have to? Says Ted Gup, who teaches journalism at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and writes about the secret lives of CIA operatives says: “[I]t is easy operating behind the curtain of secrecy to conceal setbacks and pronounce progress.” Underline that word “easy.”
5. Co-Option And Collusion. But why do we in the media go along with this approach time and again? We are not stupid. We are not robots. Too many of us have DIED trying to get this story (and other stories). Ask any journalists and they will tell you that no one tells them what to write or what to do. Yet there is a homogenized flavor and Pentagon echo to much coverage of this war that shames our profession. Why? Is it because reporters buy into the ideology of the mission? Because there are few visible war critics to provide dissenting takes? Or is it because information management has been so effective as to disallow any other legitimate approach? An uncritical stance is part of the problem. Disseminating misinformation often adds up to an inaccurate picture of where we are in this war.
Stratfor.com, a global intelligence consultant, says the media have been reporting the war as a great victory, while the Pentagon itself is saying that the war in Afghanistan is just the first battle and they are planning for six more years, with consequences unknown. Here is Statfor’s take: “Coverage of the ‘war on terrorism’ has reversed the traditional role between the press and the military. Abandoning the hypercritical coverage of the past, the media have become cheerleaders — allowing the conflict in Afghanistan to become synonymous with the war at large and portraying that war as an unalloyed success. The reversal of roles between media and military creates public expectations that can affect the prosecution of the war.”
Another disclosure appears in a January 2002 New Yorker article, where Seymour Hersh reveals that Pakistan, with U.S. permission, airlifted out its own military officers from Konduz on the eve of a battle. His version of these events contradicts the impression we had at the time of an American stance that explicitly prohibited any negotiations or escapes by forces under attack.
After the Gulf War, the bureau chiefs of the networks sat down with the Pentagon to work out guidelines that would permit independent access and end the pool system used during Desert Storm by the military to manage the press so successfully. The negotiations took eight months of haggling within the media and between media and Pentagon representatives. Nine general principles were agreed on. The key one was this: “Open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations.”
Once the “War on Terror” began, the Pentagon reaffirmed its commitment to these principles and then promptly forgot about them, applying an IO strategy of appearing to be open but defining the terms and framing the story themselves whenever possible. Did the media chiefs yell bloody murder? Hell no. They bent over and seemed to forget that independence should govern the relationship between Washington and those that write about its machinations.
I will give the last word to Stanley Cloud, who ran Time magazine’s Vietnam reporting and was one of the post-Gulf War media negotiators: “No government can be depended upon to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—especially not when that government makes mistakes or misjudgments in war time. The natural inclination then is to cover up, to hide, and the press’s role, in war even more than in peace, is to act as a watchdog and truth seeker.”
If the press is not playing this role, it may be because the media are no match for IO specialists who have learned all too well how to massage, manipulate and manage the coverage.
— Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000, from Akashic Books. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
This column was originally published on mediachannel.org. Reposted with permission of the author. ©2002 Danny Schecter