"Ain't Gonna Study War No More"

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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Bad News Is the Good News Is Fake

U.S. Congressional leaders who have been touting Iraq's new "free press" as a sign of progress in the troubled country are upset at the Pentagon's admission last week that it has been paying for "good news" stories written by the military and placed in Iraqi media by a Washington-based public relations firm.

In a briefing for the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner of Virginia, the military acknowledged that news articles written by U.S. troops had been placed as paid advertisements in the Iraqi news media, and not always properly identified.

Warner told reporters after receiving a briefing from officials at the Pentagon that senior commanders in Iraq were trying to get to the bottom of a programme that apparently also paid monthly stipends to friendly Iraqi journalists.

Warner said there had been no indications yet that the paid propaganda was false. But he said that disclosures that a U.S. company, under contract to the Pentagon, was making secret payments to plant articles with positive messages about the United States military mission could undermine the George W. Bush administration's goals in Iraq and jeopardise Iraq's developing democratic institutions.

"I remain gravely concerned about the situation," he said.

He said he had been told that the articles or advertisements were intended to counter disinformation in the Iraqi news media that was hurting Washington's efforts to stabilise the country.

The story of the Pentagon's latest public relations efforts was revealed last week by the Los Angeles Times newspaper. It said that many of the articles were presented in the Iraqi press as unbiased news accounts written and reported by independent journalists. The stories trumpet the work of U.S. and Iraqi troops, denounce insurgents and tout U.S.-led efforts to rebuild the country.

The Times reported that while the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments. Records and interviews indicate that the U.S. has paid Iraqi newspapers to run dozens of such articles, with headlines such as "Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism", since the effort began this year, the newspaper wrote.

The articles are received from the military and translated into Arabic and then placed with Iraqi media, both print and broadcast, by the Lincoln Group, a Washington-based PR firm under contract to the Pentagon. Lincoln's website boasts of its extensive network of relationships with Iraqi journalists.

The Lincoln Group defended its practices, saying it had been trying to counter insurgent propaganda with accounts of heroism by allied forces. "Lincoln Group has consistently worked with the Iraqi media to promote truthful reporting across Iraq," Laurie Adler, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Administration and Congressional officials have often emphasised the importance the U.S. places on development of a Western-style free media. Last week, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cited the proliferation of news organisations in Iraq as one of the country's great successes since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein.

The hundreds of newspapers, television stations and other "free media" offer a "relief valve" for the Iraqi public to debate the issues of their burgeoning democracy, Rumsfeld said.

The administration is not alone in pointing to the "free" media as evidence of things going well in Iraq. In a Nov. 10 speech, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona touted Iraq's "truly free press".

But Congressional Democrats said the Lincoln Group's activities were the latest example of questionable public relations practices by the administration. In an earlier case, payments were made to columnists, among them conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, who secretly received 240,000 dollars for promoting "No Child Left Behind", the administration's education initiative.

"From Armstrong Williams to fake TV news, we know this White House has tried multiple times to buy the news at home," Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, said. "Now, we need to find out if they've exported this practice to the Middle East."

Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called on the acting Pentagon inspector general to investigate the Lincoln Group's activities to see if they amounted to an illegal covert operation.

"The Pentagon's devious scheme to place favourable propaganda in Iraqi newspapers speaks volumes about the president's credibility gap," Kennedy said. "If Americans were truly welcomed in Iraq as liberators, we wouldn't have to doctor the news for the Iraqi people."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-CT) recently returned from a trip to Iraq and wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he pointed to Iraq's "independent television stations and newspapers" as evidence of the "remarkable changes" there.

"I have just returned from my fourth trip to Iraq in the past 17 months and can report real progress there. Last week, I was thrilled to see a vigorous political campaign, and a large number of independent television stations and newspapers covering it," he said.

In coordination with Bush's speech last week at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, the administration published a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq". Among its claims: "A professional and informative Iraqi news media has taken root?More than 100 newspapers freely discuss political events every day in Iraq."

A military spokesman in Iraq said contractors like the Lincoln Group had been used to market the articles to reduce the risk to Iraqi publishers, who might be attacked if they were seen as being closely linked to the military.

Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Gen. Vines and his staff in Iraq insisted that their activities with Lincoln had been "in accordance with all policies and guidelines".

But Martin Kaplan, associate dean at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and director of its Norman Lear Center, told IPS, "Anyone who recalls the good-news propaganda than ran in the state-run communist press even as the Soviet Union was collapsing will find what the Bush administration is doing in Iraq creepy."

"It sends a deeply troubling message about what they think democracy is. But given their demonisation of dissent in the United States, it sadly comes as no surprise."

And National Security Advisor Steven Hadley said on Sunday that if the payola allegations are found to be true, it was bad policy and should be discontinued.

Iraqi journalists and their representative organisations have also objected to the practice.

This is not the first time the Pentagon's PR efforts have come under scrutiny. In 2004, the agency found itself engaged in bitter, high-level debate over how far it can and should go in managing or manipulating information to influence opinion abroad.

The issue was whether the Pentagon and military should undertake an official programme that uses disinformation to shape perceptions abroad. One of the problems with such programmes is that in a world wired by satellite television and the internet, U.S. news outlets could easily repeat misleading information.

Earlier, Rumsfeld, under intense criticism, closed the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence, a short-lived operation to provide news items, possibly including false ones, to foreign journalists in an effort to influence overseas opinion.

Now, critics say, some of the proposals of that discredited office are quietly being resurrected elsewhere in the military and in the Pentagon.

William Fisher


Court Rules Social Security Can Be Seized To Pay Student Loans

Bush Administration Says Outstanding Student Loans Total $33 Billion

Not paying up on school debts can cost you when you're older or disabled.

The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the government can seize Social Security benefits to pay old student loans.

Justices unanimously ruled against a disabled man who said he needs all of his $874 monthly check to pay for food and medication.

James Lockhart's benefits had been cut by 15 percent to cover debts he racked up for college in the 1980s.

The ruling upheld a lower court decision in California.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had said that Congress eliminated a 10-year time limit on the government's right to seize payments to settle defaulted student loans.

The Bush administration said there are about $33 billion in outstanding student loans, of which about $7 billion are delinquent.

Read Opinion: Lockhart v. U.S.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press.


'Happy Holidays' Means Nothing

Jews, Muslims Join Fight for Christian Christmas

The movement defending Christmas as a Christian holiday has attracted some unlikely allies: religiously observant Jews and Muslims.

Their support bucks the assumption that religious minorities prefer a neutral approach to the season, desiring "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" at retail checkout lines or "Frosty the Snowman" over "O Holy Night" at public school concerts. Motivations differ, with Jewish leaders calling retailers' omission of "Christmas" an ominous sign for a country that used to consider itself "Judeo-Christian." Muslim leaders offer a more strategic reason: establishing firm ground on which to make their own holiday demands.

Scholars say the ballooning controversy and the unusual alliances taking shape illustrate the challenge an increasingly multicultural society faces trying to accommodate many religious expressions.

Islamic support for Christmas stems in part from religious doctrine. While observant Muslims can follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in respecting Jewish and Christian holidays, they say they have little motivation to value Santa-based winter holiday celebrations.

When it comes to Christmas, "the more religious it is, the more acceptable it is to Muslims," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Central Florida office.

But there is also the issue of Islamic self-interest.

Bedier's organization recently requested that a school board near Tampa, Fla., include a one-day Muslim holiday alongside Christian and Jewish holidays. When the school board voted instead to scrap all religious holidays, Muslim groups -- along with their Christian counterparts -- protested. The holidays, at least the Christian and Jewish ones, were reinstated.

"We would like to see one standard applied in terms of recognizing religious holidays," said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Muslims, he said, would welcome religious Christmas displays -- for example at a public library -- as long as Eid al-Adha, the upcoming Muslim holiday marking the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, was recognized in the same space.

At a Thursday (Dec. 1) Washington news conference, a small group of Jewish leaders spoke in defense of public Christmas celebrations, framing the issue as a struggle between a Bible-believing culture and the dark, potentially anti-Semitic, forces of secularism.

"Jews and other non-Christians have a stake in maintaining morality, based on a Judeo-Christian ethic. The disappearance of Christmas undercuts that ethic," said Don Feder, a former Boston Herald writer who founded Jews against Anti-Christian Defamation earlier this year.

While Jews once endorsed secularism as a safe alternative to Christian dominance, today they face a choice between "a sinister secular society on the one hand, and a society of benign Christianity on the other," said Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and president of the Seattle-based Jewish group Toward Tradition.

Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, dismissed the group's effort as part of a "conservative political agenda."

"The overwhelming majority of Jews are wedded to the separation of church and state," said Foxman. Jewish leaders lining up to advocate for Christmas "want religion in government, setting morals."

That some Jewish leaders are aligning with Christians, many of them evangelicals, is not surprising, said Keith Seamus Hasson, founder and chairman of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Observant Jews tend to be more open to religious expression in the public square, just like Christians in 'red states,"' said Hasson. "Religious America breaks down along lines of fervency of belief, more than lines of theological content."

Christmas is a contentious time because the secular idea that religion should be kept private collides head-on with "an essential human drive to celebrate in public," said Hasson, author of the 2005 book, "The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America."

"The question is: how do you celebrate your own beliefs, while allowing others to celebrate conflicting beliefs?"

Hasson's answer is that Christians should assert their right to celebrate in public, while acknowledging that other groups have the same right -- the very argument that Muslim leaders advance.

When it comes to public schools, where disputes over religion often go to court, administrators and other decision-makers haven't gotten the balance right, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center.

"There is a trend in public schools to move away from the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas. But sometimes the move goes too far and becomes an overreaction," said Haynes, describing schools where nativity pageants are cancelled or Christmas carols eliminated. "The irony is that by trying to avoid controversy, (educators) have often created it."

The same might be said of the retail arena, where marketing experts say corporations don't want to alienate non-Christian or non-religious holiday shoppers.

Many department stores have dropped explicit references to Christmas because "it was considered safer to be neutral so as not to offend any particular customer group," said Irene Dickey, a lecturer in the management and marketing department at the University of Dayton's School of Business in Dayton, Ohio.

Some conservative Christian groups have gone beyond voicing complaints.

The American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., said it has rallied 600,000 supporters to boycott Target, because the retailer doesn't use "Christmas" in advertising and in-store promotions. The group has similar complaints to make against a number of other popular nationwide retailers, ranging from OfficeMax to Sears.

"When it comes to affinity marketing, there is no greater affinity than faith," said Mike Paul, a reputation management expert and evangelical Christian. "The answer is not to censor one group, but add others."

"Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Muslim holidays -- everybody should get their own aisles (of merchandise). `Happy holidays,' that means nothing."

Andrea Useem
Religion News Service