Pentagon questions profiling of reporters in Afghanistan

No doubt Stars and Stripes is a Pentagon-authorized newspaper. But no one should doubt the daily’s editorial independence from the Defense Department. This week Stars and Stripes beat the rest of the press pack in breaking a story that not only made Defense Department officials uncomfortable, but that compelled veteran Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman to say he would look into the matter.

“For me, a tool like this serves no purpose, and it doesn’t serve me with any value,” Whitman told Pentagon reporters Thursday in Washington. “I haven’t seen anything that violates any policies, but again, I’m learning about aspects of this as I question our folks in Afghanistan.” Whitman, a retired military officer who has been a Pentagon spokesman since the Clinton administration, added, “If I find something that is inconsistent with Defense Department values and policies, you can be sure I will address it.”

The profiling of reporters is comprehensive, reported Stars and Stripes. One reporter for a major U.S. newspaper (both unnamed) was given an 83.33 percent “neutral” rating and a 16.67 “negative” rating based on assessment of 12 stories over the past two years. The ratings are carried out by The Rendon Group, a public relations firm that has long done contract work for the Defense Department. (The Rendon Group donated $5,000 to CPJ in 2002.)

Stars and Stripes pursued the story, despite previous denials by both the Defense Department and The Rendon Group that the practice even existed. Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Afghanistan, told Stars and Stripes that the military was moving away from rating reporters based on the favorability of their coverage to the Pentagon to evaluating the accuracy of their stories.

As late as Monday, Pentagon spokesman Whitman in Washington told reporters that the rating program has “not been a practice for some time.” Using almost the same language as spokeswoman Mathias, Whitman added: “I can tell you that the way in which the Department of Defense evaluates an article is its accuracy. It’s a good article if it’s accurate. It’s a bad article if it’s inaccurate. That’s the only measure that we use here at the Defense Department.”

Similarly, The Rendon Group said in a statement on its Web site: “The Rendon Group provides relational analysis of news content specifically focused on themes of critical importance defined as U.S. interests – stability and security, counter insurgency, operational results–to name a few. The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters.”

On Thursday Stars and Stripes obtained confidential documents from The Rendon Group prepared for U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan to establish that the rating of reporters was, in fact, ongoing. “The purpose of this memo is to provide an assessment of [a reporter from a major U.S. newspaper]…in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan,” reads the introduction to one reporter’s profile obtained by the Pentagon-authorized newspaper.

Another reporter for a major U.S. paper is rated as “neutral to positive” in his coverage, reported Stars and Stripes. The profile went on to say future negative stories “could possibly be neutralized” by feeding the reporter mitigating quotes from military officials. The profile of a TV reporter (Stars and Stripes withheld the names of the reporters and their outlets) states that the television correspondent takes a “subjective angle.” But, adds The Rendon Group profile obtained by Stars and Stripes, directing him toward “the positive work of a successful operation” could “result in favorable coverage.”

Anyone who reads it has long known that the paper with a circulation of 200,000 oriented to military personnel and their families has always been loyal to grunts over either bureaucrats or commanders. Now everyone knows that the Pentagon-published paper is not afraid to dig into the dirt of its military patrons, as Stars and Stripes itself has long maintained.