Good News … is No News

The Pentagon’s continuing efforts to massage the message from Iraq.


The Pentagon has consistently tried to lighten up the news from Iraq, claiming that the media are disproportionately fixated on chaos and violence: photographers have been barred from taking pictures of body bags coming home; the White House has grumbled openly about the media’s distorting “filter”; the president has talked to the press as little as possible. Now Pentagon high-ups have discovered a new technique for shaping the news: making it themselves.

Columnist Antonia Zerbisias explains in the Toronto Star, that the Pentagon’s new plan will gloss over the less palatable aspects of the Iraqi occupation.

“[T]he Pentagon is currently building what I call its own GNN — for Good News Network — to do an end run around the networks and beam directly from its press centre in Iraq. Just in time for election year 2004, the satellite service will counteract all those terrible stories of bombings, shootings, killings and maiming from the, you know, war.

Instead, TV stations stateside that pick up its feeds will be able to telecast happy tales of school or clinic re-openings. (Not that journalists are allowed unfettered access to Iraqi hospitals but that’s another matter.)”

Essentially the problem is this: with the Bush administration moving into an election year, Americans have to have some hope that the war in Iraq is wrapping up, or at the very least that it’s not going to get worse. That’s proving a hard sell. True, Saddam’s imprisonment has given Bush a much-needed boost in the polls, but with the insurgency undiminished, that may prove fleeting.

The Pentagon’s new plan would allow local television stations to bypass network coverage and get either free or inexpensive satellite feed directly from the Coalition Provisional Authority. As spokesman Major Joe Yoswa explained to National Public Radio, reporters don’t spend enough time reporting what’s going well in Iraq’s reconstruction. “They’re (major news networks) focused on the spectacular or the tragic incidents that are happening on the ground there, and not getting the full story out there,” he said.

Future plans include two-way communication, whereby a local reporter in the United States could interview soldiers in Iraq via the Pentagon’s news satellite. As one senior administrator in the White House — which needless to say supports the plan — told the New York Times, “The American people need to hear good news from Iraq to supplement the bad news they get.”

The Pentagon’s happy news satellite plan is the latest in a series of moves to move coverage of Iraq in a more positive direction. In November, the Pentagon decided it needed to alter the image of the troops in Iraq, bombarding reporters with heroic tales of allied forces beating-back the pro-Saddam insurgency. According to defense officials, what is needed is an image American troops on the offensive, not passively waiting to be picked off by Iraqis. As AP reports, in the second week of November the military public affairs office began inundating reporters with press releases describing successful operations against Iraqi resistance. As AP’s Pauline Jelinek notes, these detailed releases on coalition raids contrasted sharply with previous releases, which simply identified American troops killed in attacks.

There’s no doubt the Pentagon is politically motivated, but Tom Rosenstiel of The Project for Excellence in Journalism advises a wait-and-see approach.

“What we have to be mindful of: Is this access, or is this propaganda? And if it’s access, fine. If it’s propaganda or changing the event to make it one that is, you know, manipulated to the advantage of the administration rather than a genuine airing of question and answer, that’s a problem.”