A little under a year ago, it was revealed that the Lincoln Group had been contracted by the Pentagon to pay for good press in the Iraqi media. Details were sketchy, but this month Harper’s published an account by Willem Marx of his summer in Baghdad interning for the Lincoln Group. Marx talks to Brooke about when the news is too good, and too lucrative, to be news at all.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The work of the Lincoln Group was revealed a little under a year ago in the Los Angeles Times, and it demonstrated the lengths to which the U.S. government was willing to go to get good press in Iraq.
Both the initial reporting and the eventual Pentagon investigation detailed the work of the private company which had been hired by the Pentagon to pay Iraqi media for the placement of stories written by the U.S. military.
But there have been few firsthand accounts of the process, until this month when Willem Marx revealed what he did over summer vacation in Harper's Magazine. He says that as a student at Oxford he hungered for the life of a foreign correspondent, and when he saw something called the Lincoln Group advertise for a media intern in Iraq, he jumped at the chance.
WILLEM MARX: I had a place to start the Graduate School of Journalism, NYU the following September, so I jumped at the opportunity to go out to a conflict zone and try my hand at media work in that kind of environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, once you'd settled in the green zone and you were comfortably there with your fellow Lincolnians, what were your actual tasks?
WILLEM MARX: I was sent stories--I suppose you could call them--by this U.S. military unit based in Camp Victory, and was then sending them on to Iraqis to translate into Arabic and then to place inside Iraqi newspapers.
These Iraqi employees of the Lincoln Group would pay newspaper editors to publish these articles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Based on what material?
WILLEM MARX: Well, I presumed wire stories and their own internal reports from military units around the country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you ever presume that they might be making these stories up out of whole cloth?
WILLEM MARX: I thought there were certainly quotes at times that could easily be fabricated. They seemed to fit too well. And, you know, there was very little sourcing behind them. There were certainly times when I thought this could not all be absolutely true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I remember one story that you particularly liked was in the voice of an Iraqi citizen mourning the death of 23 children who had been killed by an insurgent attack. That was written by a soldier?
WILLEM MARX: Yeah, I think so.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is obviously a far cry from journalism. Didn't you feel a twinge of conscience now and again?
WILLEM MARX: I did, and again, decided that it was still too big an opportunity to be working out there; I'd be starting graduate school. It wasn't necessarily the best thing possible, and I wasn't necessarily helping anyone, but I tried to improve the way they did things and push stories that maybe weren't being covered by mainstream media, but also weren't so one-sided.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the Lincoln Group was employed by the Pentagon, right?
WILLEM MARX: As far as I'm aware, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, you were told by your supervisor that you, quote, "just had to keep the military happy" and you were warned not to bother them with questions or reveal what it was precisely you were doing. Didn't they know what you were doing?
WILLEM MARX: I think they had a vague idea that we had these incredible links to Iraqi media outlets, which in point of fact, really wasn't the case. There was--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you didn't even know most of the papers you were sending these things to. You were sending them through an intermediary who you call Mohammed in the piece. You didn't know if you were sending them to dailies or weeklies or what audiences they reached. You didn't really know anything, did you?
WILLEM MARX: Absolutely no idea, especially when I got there. I'd heard of very few of the newspapers, had no idea what their demographic was in terms of readership or anything like that.
But there was this attempt by Lincoln Group employees to keep the military in the dark. If they had no idea how we did things, the thinking was that made us a far better strategic partner.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was also a point where you went to the State Department's Baghdad Press Center where, supposedly, Iraqi journalists were being trained in, you know, ethical journalistic practice, and you were trying to hire them for the Lincoln Group. And when people at the Baghdad Press Center asked you about your work, you said that you were running ad campaigns for multinationals, and you wrote--"which was effectively true." Excuse me, that's not true at all!
WILLEM MARX: No, you're right, you're absolutely right. And I just wanted to-- [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You lied. [LAUGHS]
WILLEM MARX: I'm not sure I lie there. I think it's one of the biggest paradoxes of my time out there, was that you have the Pentagon on one side willing to influence and abrogate the responsibilities of local journalists, and at the same time, you have the State Department pumping millions of dollars into training these Iraqi journalists, trying to encourage a new independent democratic journalistic way of operating.
I, at the time, was pretty worried about giving the game away. I didn't know how secret we were meant to be. There was certainly this shroud of secrecy encouraged by my seniors, and was quite willing to tell little white lies to the State Department woman I'd meet at the Press Center.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you were successful at what you did. You managed to place a lot of articles into a lot of Iraqi newspapers.
WILLEM MARX: I think, yeah. Money talks in Iraq. And these newspaper editors, for right or wrong, were willing to take thousands of dollars to support their families, help their friends. I think anyone, whether they were my age, 40, far more experienced, far less experienced, could have done it, as long as they had the right Iraqi contacts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But at some point that project went a little off the rails because you got involved with a much bigger project, a 16-million-dollar project that the Lincoln Group had taken on, and wasn't really capable of pulling off, I guess.
WILLEM MARX: It was actually nearer to 20 million dollars. And it was over two months, for placing TV commercials, radio commercials, TV and radio news sports, as well--as well as ramping up the amount of pieces printed in newspapers. And I was so busy on a day-to-day basis trying to set that up so that it could start working that I kind of lost sight of the other newspaper contract I'd been involved in initially.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what happened?
WILLEM MARX: Well, it seemed that Iraqi employees at the company started skimming off large amounts of cash from the sums we were paying to newspaper editors to run these pieces, well, you know, maybe a thousand dollars a time. I couldn't be sure. I had no idea how they paid the editors. I had no idea whether it was cash, how the money changed hands.
I found myself [LAUGHS], as a 23-year-old, carrying a gun, talking to these men, accusing them of stealing money, threatening them. And I'd already decided what I was doing was hardly an ethical career to follow. But that was the moment when I thought, you know, there's no point me staying out here for another day longer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The article is written in rather a naive voice. It strikes me that this voyage of discovery that you take us on in Harper's was perhaps discovered a bit before you actually got very far into it.
WILLEM MARX: I'm not a naive person. I knew there were risks going out there, but the extent to which I'd be involved in this kind of operation was really not clear to me at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willem, thank you very much.
WILLEM MARX: Good to talk to you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Willem Marx's essay, "Misinformation Intern: My Summer as a Military Propagandist in Iraq" is in the September issue of Harper's. He's currently a journalism graduate student at New York University.