The U.S. military public-affairs apparatus in Afghanistan has been paying an American media firm to review the work of reporters covering the eight-year-old war. The reports, by the Washington, D.C.-based Rendon Group, have been used to screen journalists requesting embeds with U.S. forces. Newspaper Stars & Stripes, which receives some government funding, broke the story last week.
Rendon’s reports rated journalists’ work according to whether it was “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” towards official U.S. policy. The military had denied that it rejected potential embeds based on the reports, but one former U.S. Army public affairs officer contradicted that claim, in a follow-on interview with Stars & Stripes.
Now the military says it is canceling the$1.5-million contract. “It was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to U.S. forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a military spokesman. In the week following Stars & Stripes‘ revelation of Rendon’s work, scores of media outlets had repeated the newspaper’s findings, and many reporters had demanded to see the profiles Rendon had created on them.
Bob Zelnick, a former war reporter now teaching journalism at Boston University, had encouraged such protests. “It seems to me, if reporters are being denied access, or if that access is severely controlled, I’d take it right to the top,” Zelnick told me.
Some journalists, who had already seen their profiles, published the contents of the reports. Among them was Nir Rosen, a freelance reporter who has written many high-profile war stories for Rolling Stone and other publications. “Based upon past reporting and the current challenging situation in Afghanistan, Rosen’s reporting is likely to be highly unfavorable to the mission in Afghanistan,” Rosen’s Rendon report read, in part. “Rosen is likely to continue to characterize the Taliban as a well-armed and fairly effective military force that the U.S. is incapable of defeating … It is also possible that Rosen may wish to circumvent security and administrative restrictions in order to pursue other story angles.”
“This last sentence was a key concern for an American military public affairs officer in Kabul, who told me that they were worried I would leave the embed to go hang out with the Taliban,” Rosen wrote last week. “[A]s if I could just walk off of a base and knock on the Taliban’s door.”
“It is no surprise that the military has a vetting process to determine which journalists are acceptable or appropriate,” Rosen added. “After all, the military’s job is to implement a policy and achieve whatever mission they have been assigned. That mission has a propaganda element, or an information operations element, and it is also contingent upon the support of the American public and policy makers. That mission can be undermined by journalists.”
The military’s cancellation of the Rendon contract is a welcome move, although it’s possible that the armed forces will simply continue the screening practice, using military personnel instead of civilian contractors.
It was a bad week for military censorship in Afghanistan. Besides the Rendon controversy, the week also saw famed war blogger Michael Yon run afoul of the British military’s public affairs machinery. Yon, an American, had spent five weeks with British soldiers in Sangin, in southern Afghanistan. On Tuesday, he published an exhaustive report on the British effort to secure the dangerous Pharmacy Road. Later, Yon edited some of the photos in his report, at the request of the British Ministry of Defense, in order to obscure British base defenses. Subsequently, Yon wrote that his embed had been “canceled,” seemingly due to the critical nature of his reporting.
The MoD denied Yon’s allegation. “We welcome Michael’s thorough reporting of the work of British forces and we have no objection to his recent piece … All journalists embedding with the U.K. military are given access to troops without censorship.”
From 2005 to 2007, I embedded with the British military in Iraq four times. On one occasion, my minders demanded to see, in advance, video footage I had shot of British operations training the Iraqi navy. Otherwise, I never faced any form of censorship.
But Iraq is not Afghanistan. While the British government at times seemed eager to leave Iraq, “no one can doubt the U.K.’s commitment to this mission” in Afghanistan, according to Simon Shercliff, first secretary for foreign security and policy at the British embassy in Washington, D.C.
Both the British and American governments have bet heavily on progress in the Afghan war. The increased investment in the conflict has drawn more scrupulous — and often more critical — reporting from major media. The governments’ responses to this reporting has seemingly included half-hearted censorship that, so far, has failed in the face of media protests. In a conflict where the bad news often overshadows the good news, that, at least, is encouraging.
(Photo: Michael Yon)