Stars and Stripes, the editorially independent newspaper serving U.S. armed forces worldwide, reported this week that the military is in effect screening journalists who wish to embed with troops. Triggered in part by an interview on this program, Stars and Stripes confirmed that a Washington PR firm has provided evaluations of reporters’ relative degrees of positivity. Stars and Stripes senior managing editor Howard Witt explains. Meanwhile, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, military spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, says official DOD policy forbids restricting access to reporters based on their past coverage.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away. I'm Bob Garfield. The news from Afghanistan this week was grim. With the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in a bombing incident, 2009 became the bloodiest year for NATO forces since Afghanistan operations began in late 2001. The resurgence of the Taliban and escalating violence led Joint Chiefs Chairman to characterize the security situation as, quote, “serious and deteriorating.” The Pentagon, meanwhile, persists in its attempts to have two wars portrayed in the best possible light. Stars and Stripes, the editorially independent newspaper serving the armed forces worldwide, reported this week that the military is, in effect, screening journalists who wish to embed with troops. Triggered in part by an interview on this program, Stars and Stripes confirmed that a Washington PR firm has provided evaluations of reporters’ relative degrees of positivity. Howard Witt is senior managing editor of Stars and Stripes, and he joins me now. Howard, welcome to the show. HOWARD WITT: Thank you so much for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Summarize, please, the story you printed this week. HOWARD WITT: We ourselves have run into problems with the embed system. A couple of months ago one of our reporters were barred from an embed in Mosul in Iraq, and the stated reason from the Army public affairs people was because he failed to highlight good news. And then with some further investigation last week and this week, we came to find out that there’s actual profiles that are commissioned of every reporter who is assigned or seeks to be embedded with the military. These profiles are done by this Washington-based PR firm called the Rendon Group, and so these profiles basically look at a reporter’s past work, whether it’s positive, negative or neutral. They lay it all out on a pie chart, give the reporter a rating. And then they also give some very specific recommendations as to how best to manipulate that reporter’s coverage, in terms of the kind of places you might embed that reporter. So it seems like a pretty dramatic attempt on the part of the military to steer this process. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the military has told you that you’re misunderstanding the role of the Rendon Group, that it’s simply to help commanders on the ground accommodate the needs of reporters. Do you buy that? HOWARD WITT: I know that’s what they say, but we're in possession of several of these profiles and they seem to go a lot further than that. They say things like, in light of so-and-so’s past interest in covering the soldier’s view of stories, providing him the opportunity to cover the positive work of a successful operation could result in favorable coverage. Then they also said about a reporter from one of America’s most preeminent newspapers, they said, the sentiment in his articles is generally neutral to positive. Given that neutral to positive sentiment, one can expect so-and-so to produce coverage that is at least neutral in sentiment and representative of the military point of view of events. They said the possible negative coverage that this reporter might provide could, quote, “possibly be neutralized by providing military official quotes about the topic,” blah-blah-blah. So these things [LAUGHS], they don't seem to be quite as innocent as the Pentagon is saying that they are. BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the experience that Stars and Stripes had with its own reporter, Heath Druzin, who had been embedded with a unit in Iraq and reapplied for another embed tour and was denied, amid some fairly nasty allegations by the Army. HOWARD WITT: They came up with a whole bunch of allegations, many weeks after the fact. No complaint about his coverage was ever raised with us at the time the stories were written, but when he reapplied for an embed several months later with the same unit, he was denied. And when he, and we, pressed for an explanation, we were given a whole bunch of different reasons. They ranged from, he tried to use a computer when he wasn't authorized, he attempted to report on the names of some dead soldiers before they were officially released by the Pentagon, he failed to highlight the good news about the unit’s activities. We summarily and vigorously denied the basis of all of these claims. For instance, it’s our policy to never report the names of a deceased soldier before the next of kin and the Army has officially made its announcement. We do that as a matter of policy and also as a matter of morality. The idea [LAUGHS] that he failed to highlight good news, the specifics of that allegation, as they were related to us, was that he dared to talk to some actual Iraqis in Mosul and get their impression about whether they thought the American troops were a helpful presence there. And he collected a whole bunch of quotes from people who said, no, they didn't think they were. And that infuriated the Army commanders and appears to have been the real basis for why they denied the embed. And, again, we completely reject that the Army has the right to do that, and we wrote about it. BOB GARFIELD: Now, in a moment we're going to speak to a public affairs spokesman for the Army in Afghanistan, and I have no doubt that she will say, well, the fact that so much bad news has emanated from both Iraq and Afghanistan in stories by embedded reporters is proof that the military has only the best interests of reporters in mind, putting aside a couple of tempests in a teapot. Is this a tempest in a teapot? HOWARD WITT: You might say that the reason that all of that news got out might have been in spite of the military’s attempts to suppress it. But, no, this is not a tempest in a teapot. These profiles are being compiled, apparently, on every reporter who embeds. This morning over at the Pentagon, all the military reporters were demanding to see their own profiles. I'm told that, for instance, CNN’s Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, got hers and was incensed. This is a systematic effort, or at least has been, on the part of the military to monitor and attempt to manipulate what reporters are doing. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I think the general public may often misunderstand Stars and Stripes’ relationship with the military, that it’s, you know, some sort of propaganda mouthpiece, not understanding that it’s editorially independent. Do you think the Pentagon itself sometimes doesn't understand that Stars and Stripes is not a house organ? HOWARD WITT: They absolutely misunderstand that. We're constantly getting complaints from commanders that somehow we're not toeing the party line. And our polite but firm answer is, no, we're not, and we never will; that is not our job. Our job is to be an independent source of news for the men and women who are risking their lives for America overseas. BOB GARFIELD: Howard, I appreciate your time. Thank you. HOWARD WITT: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Howard Witt is senior manager editor of Stars and Stripes. Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker is spokesperson for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Lieutenant Commander, welcome to the show. LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: Thank you, happy to be here. BOB GARFIELD: The military told Stars and Stripes it hasn't vetted or graded reporters for at least a year. Stars and Stripes has documents that shows that the Rendon Group was grading reporters at least as recently as May. What’s true? LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: There’s actually a couple of things to correct, even right there. We've never graded reporters, and the information we get from Rendon doesn't do so. The information we were contracted with them to provide is basic biographical details and the past stories reporters have done. Now, sometimes those do include a positive, negative or neutral rating, which we do get. Frankly, we don't use that information. One of the premises of the Stars and Stripes story was that we take this information and then decide whether to allow them to embed or cover operations, and that is flat-out incorrect. That has never been Department of Defense policy, it has never been U.S. forces Afghanistan policy. And any time there have been instances of individual public affairs officers making that mistake that has been corrected immediately. BOB GARFIELD: You know, if it is not meant to grade a reporter on how friendly he is, potentially, or her, to the unit, why pay an outside PR firm to create neutral, negative and positive sentiment ratings to begin with? LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: That is a piece of information that’s included in those reports, but it’s not the primary thing we've asked for from Rendon. They are analyzing media coverage trends. And that’s not individual reporters, that’s overall what’s being reported on given issues, measuring the effectiveness of our own communications and also measuring the effectiveness of our events by tracking which are covered by news media and which aren't. It also includes whether media reporting is accurate. That’s information we're much more interested in. The positive, neutral and negative, I can tell you, I've never actually seen used for anything here. BOB GARFIELD: Well then let me ask you about the Heath Druzin case. He is the Stars and Stripes reporter who covered operations of the First Cavalry Divisions’ Third Heavy Brigade Combat Team in February and March but was not permitted to rejoin the unit for another reporting tour because, quote, according to his dossier, “Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news.” LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: That was in Iraq, correct? BOB GARFIELD: That was in Iraq and it was from a public affairs officer. Is that not a smoking gun that demonstrates the military is seeking to manipulate coverage? LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: Absolutely not, let me say that. DOD policy is absolutely not to try to shape coverage by denying access to reporters who don't portray operations favorably. I can tell you that in every instance I've seen where something like that has happened, the commands have said, that’s not how we operate, we are not here to evaluate past coverage and deny or grant access, based on that. BOB GARFIELD: Lieutenant Commander, if the commanders were not expected to act on the information provided by Rendon Group, then why are they given the information to begin with? It would seem to me that the commanders in the field have wars to fight and should have nothing to do with the embedded reporters, other than protecting operational security. Why do they have any kind of PR mission at all? LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: There is no PR mission. The public affairs mission for the Department of Defense is to facilitate access to information, to the extent that we can do so without compromising security. If we truly had a policy of not embedding reporters with a history of negative coverage, you wouldn't see the coverage you see. I think if you look at, you know, many of the reporters we've embedded, many, many of them are very critical of operations and commanders and the administration. The facts just do not support the idea that we are denying access as a matter of policy based on past coverage. BOB GARFIELD: Except, when the facts do support that idea. LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: I don't think that the facts ever support that idea. BOB GARFIELD: So my final question for you is this, then: If the Rendon Group is providing information on reporters, including their historical accuracy in theater, and if mistakes have happened, do you not see a direct connection between the availability of these dossiers and the tendency for public affairs officers and operational commanders to act against the written policy? LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: I don't. It really – the, the facts just don't support that. We, as a matter of course, provide a great deal of access to reporters wishing to embed, and the policy is very clear. Public affairs officers are definitely aware of it. When mistakes are made, they're dealt with. BOB GARFIELD: All right, Lieutenant Commander, thank you very much. LCDR CHRISTINE SIDENSTRICKER: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Lieutenant Commander Christine Sidenstricker is a spokesperson for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We spoke to her from Kabul. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] As of Friday, according to the Pentagon, the reporter profiling program was, quote, “under review.” No formal inquiry into the program has been launched. Coming up, if reporters cover the debate over the efficacy of torture, have they already taken sides? This is On the Media from NPR.