Military Ends Contract for Profiling Media

TV reporters Lucian Reed (right) and Seth Moulton interview U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Gus Biggio of 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, about cleanup plans for a bazaar in Helmand province, Afghanistan, July 19, 2009. Mouton and Reed are temporarily embedded with the Marine unit in order to tell the story of its impact in Nawa District.
Staff Sgt. William Greeson, USMC
U.S. military authorities in Afghanistan have terminated a contract with a public affairs company that was producing background profiles of reporters covering the war, after initially denying the existence of profiling.

The work being done by The Rendon Group had become a "distraction to our main mission here," Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communications for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said Monday in an e-mailed statement.

Smith and other U.S. military officials have denied that profiles created by the Washington-based P.R. firm were used to rate the coverage of individual reporters, or that those ratings influenced decisions on whether a journalist would be embedded with a military unit.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan "has never denied access to any reporter based upon their past stories," the paper adds.

The termination is effective Sept. 1, states an information paper on the $1.5 million contract prepared by Smith's office.

Star and Stripes first revealed last Monday that beginning in 2005 Rendon provided a "positive-negative-neutral" rating system for reporters, as well as advice on how to "neutralize" negative coverage of the military.

Profiles from the Rendon Group, which provides "news analysis and media assessment" for the Pentagon, include pie charts detailing the perceived "positive," "neutral" or "negative" slants of a reporter's cumulative work.

An Army official acknowledged to Star and Stripes Friday that the profiles were used to deny certain reporters access to American fighting units as recently as 2008, or to help steer the journalists away from potentially negative stories.

Rendon has said that a small part of its contract involved preparing profiles of reporters preparing to travel with U.S. troops. These reviews were done only upon request and were intended to give commanders a better idea of what topics the reporters embedded with the unit were most likely to ask about, according to Rendon.

In a statement posted on its Web site, Rendon said it provides analysis of news content focused on themes such as stability and security, counterinsurgency and operational results.

"The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters. The analysis is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist's inquiries, and TRG does not make recommendations as to who the military should or should not interview," it said.

Freelance journalist P.J. Tobia obtained a copy of his Rendon profile and posted it on his blog, saying it appeared his profiler had read everything he had written in the last few years. "Reading this report is like perusing the diary of your stalker," Tobia wrote.

His report by Rendon, dated May 5, 2009, was generated after Tobia's second embed in Afghanistan and prior to his third. It states that its purpose is to give an updated assessment of Tobia and his work, "both through a summary of content and analysis of style, in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan."

It judged his most recent Philadelphia Inquirer article as "more sympathetic and less critical of the U.S. military"; said he "continues to humanize U.S. soldiers" based on his selection of quotes; and rated the article "neutral-to-positive," compared to his previous work which it deemed "neutral or neutral-to-negative."

Rendon called Tobia's past articles on Afghanistan "highly narrative" first-person features that "may be considered commentaries rather than hard news pieces."

"His articles are thought provoking as he often asks questions rather than making conclusions," it notes.

It also traced his appearances in print, from the Washington Post and Nashville Scene to the Village Voice, which Rendon characterized as "left leaning."

Under the heading "Expectations for Embed," Rendon wrote, "Based on his previous embed and past reporting, it is unlikely that he will miss an opportunity to report on U.S. military missteps. However, if following previous trends, he will remain sympathetic to U.S. troops and may acknowledge a learning curve in Afghanistan."

Tobia noted that employees of Rendon have told him they are merely helping the military decide which embed is right for a particular reporter, and deny any nefarious intent.

This is not the first controversy surrounding the Rendon Group, which was previously hired by the CIA to generate anti-Saddam Hussein propaganda in 1991, as reported in 2002 by the Chicago Tribune.

In 2002 the New York Times reported the Pentagon had contracted with the Rendon Group to help create an Office of Strategic Influence, to disseminate propaganda to media outlets abroad. Amid a firestorm of criticism, the office was shut down, but Rendon's contracts continued.

In 2005 the Tribune wrote the Rendon Group had been paid more than $56 million by the Pentagon for media consulting since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Rendon has also been linked to the emergence of the Iraqi National Congress, and to anti-Saddam propaganda - such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction - before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.