Meet The Pentagon's New Press Strategy – And Old Press Complaints

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last Friday received relatively little coverage over the past three-day weekend but upon close review, it raised a host of very interesting points. The address came as part of an administration reaction to a recent Pentagon review of the war on terrorism that stressed a lengthy engagement and noted the lack of strategic communications efforts. While Rumsfeld's observations were valid, his calls for a more aggressive media engagement leave some sticky issues unanswered for the U.S. press.

First, let's get a little recap of the Secretary's speech. First, Rumsfeld walked through some of the sophisticated means used by terrorist groups like al Qaeda to spread messages – e-mails, the Internet, news beamed worldwide on satellite TV (such as Al Jazeera). He talked of the mass proliferation of satellite news, noting:

A few years ago in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi could have his tongue cut out if he was found in possession of a satellite dish or used the Internet without government approval. Today, satellite dishes are ubiquitous in that country as well.

Regrettably, many of the news channels being watched through these dishes are extremely hostile to the West.

The growing number of media outlets in many parts of the world still have relatively immature standards and practices that too often serve to inflame and distort -- rather than to explain and inform. And while al-Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized this forum for many years, and have successfully further poisoned the Muslim public's view of the West, we have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences.

Rumsfeld went on to use the erroneous Newsweek report from last year that claimed a Koran had been flushed down a toilet in Guantanimo as a prime example – a report the sparked riots throughout the Muslim world:
Once it was published in a weekly news magazine, it was posted on websites, sent in e-mails, and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days, before the facts could be discovered.

And, in those first days, the false story incited anti-American riots in Pakistan and elsewhere, and human beings were killed in the ensuing riots.

Once aware of the story, the U.S. military, appropriately and of necessity, took the time needed to try to ensure that they had the facts before responding, having to conduct interviews, pored over countless documents, investigations and log books, and finally determined that the charge was not correct. But in the meantime, some lives had been lost and damage had been done to our country.

Rumsfeld faulted news organizations for the "explosion" of "critical" stories about the Pentagon's practice of paying to place positive stories in Iraqi news outlets, saying it had a "chilling effect" on military public affairs officers:
The conclusion to be drawn, logically, for anyone in the military who is asked to do something involving public affairs is that there is no tolerance for innovation, much less for human error that could conceivably be seized upon by a press that seems to demand perfection from the government, but does not apply the same standard to the enemy or even sometimes to themselves.

Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment. Some additional photographs have come out just this week. This, of course, was an event where the policy of the president and the policy of the government was for humane treatment and was against torture. And there were some people on a night shift who engaged in mistreatment of detainees. So this week, again, out of Australia, I guess, some same pictures—similar pictures, same event -- of people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq, who did some things that they have since been punished for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

But weigh the numbers of column inches and hours of television involving that event, for example, against the discovery of Saddam Hussein's mass graves, which were filled with literally hundreds of thousands of human beings, innocent Iraqis who were killed.

That's the reality of the world in which we must operate, and in which our forces are fighting.

Then again, maybe the traditional news outlets are no longer the front lines of this information war, according to Rumsfeld's prescription for change:
The U.S. government will have to develop the institutional capability to anticipate and act within the same news cycle. That will require instituting 24-hour press operation centers, elevating Internet operations and other channels of communications to the equal status of traditional 20th Century press relations. It will result in much less reliance on the traditional print press, just as the publics of the U.S. and the world are relying less on newspapers as their principal source of information.
Finally, the Secretary summed up the stakes:
We are fighting a battle where the survival of our free way of life is at stake. And the center of gravity of that struggle is not just on the battlefield. It is a test of wills and it will be won or lost with our public and the publics of free nations across the globe. We will need to do all we can to attract supporters to our efforts, to correct the lies being told which so damage our country, and shatter the appeal of the enemy.
Implicit but unsaid in Rumsfeld's remarks was what role the U.S. media should be playing in this information war (or at least what he thinks its role should be). It's a question we've struggled with since 9/11 and one that still appears to flummox us all from time to time. The press has been alternately criticized for being too deferential toward a government at war (roughly the period between 9/11 and the fall of Baghdad) and waging an effort to undermine that government (roughly the period between Abu Ghraib and today).

There has been much frustration on the part of Rumsfeld and others in the administration that the Arab media, particularly Al Jazeera, at times seems to play a propaganda role for the terrorists – airing tapes of Osama bin Laden, showing hostages beheaded, etc. That frustration rises to a whole new level when the military and government at home is under attack about prisoner abuse or looking into flushing toilets. After all, when pictures of Abu Ghraib surfaced, there was an entire power structure called to answer, who's getting grilled about the capture or killing of a U.S. journalist? What member of the Al Qaeda cabinet is taking the heat for that one?

But does Rumsfeld, or anyone else in the administration, really want the New York Times to become the Al Jazeera of the West? Sometimes the Defense Secretary's tough critiques of press coverage make it hard to know the answer to that question but his speech on Friday came across as more an attempt to explain than complain, an acknowledgment of the different standards applied on each side of this battle. The speech also included some advice for the press – some of these stories are harmful to our cause. But he appeared to leave the burden of balance on press itself.

While the Defense Department is turning toward new technologies, the mainstream media remains a major player in the equation. At CBS News, we've recently seen two different examples of how journalists sometimes view the balance between reporting the story and deferring to government concerns. Pentagon correspondent David Martin told us of a story he held after defense officials argued it would put U.S. troops in danger if aired. On Sunday's "Face the Nation," anchor Bob Schieffer used his commentary to make a different point in response to Rumsfeld:

Finally today, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says one source of America's problems these days is that we're losing the public relations war to Al Qaeda. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations he said, quote, "The US government still functions as a five-and-dime store in an eBay world." Boy did he get that part right. But man, is he wrong about why.

I've dealt with Brother Rumsfeld since he was President Ford's chief of staff, and, frankly, I like the guy. Not long ago I reminded him that we have been arguing with each other for 30 years now. We both laughed. But here's where I believe he's wrong: He thinks the press, for instance, makes too much of horrible events such as Abu Ghraib. I don't.

A democracy, by definition, means openness. The founding fathers knew enough about human nature to know that government would always cover up its mistakes if it operated in secret. Bringing mistakes to the fore is a strength, not a weakness. When America outlawed segregation, it acknowledged 200 years of wrongs far worse than Abu Ghraib. Would anyone argue that publicly correcting those wrongs made us weaker? To the contrary, it made us stronger. It showed the world that we live by the values we preach, and that those values work.

This administration has been secretive when there was no point to it, has paid reporters to take the government line, and has left the impression that bad news exists only in the minds of reporters. That's no way to win a PR war; it is a sure way to lose it.

Our strength comes from emphasizing in every word and action the values that separate us from those who oppose us, not from adopting their methods.

And so, the discussion continues. What do you think?