When is a reporter not a reporter?
I just started reading Weapons of Mass Deception, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, of the Center for Media & Democracy. For those who don’t know who these guys are, they’re two of the few watchdogs of the PR industry, and their latest book looks at the PR campaign to sell the Iraq war to the American people and the world. Through meticulous documentation and witty verbiage, Stauber and Rampton — unlike Ann Coulter — document instance after instance in which the drive to oust Saddam Hussein was packaged, marketed and sold. With no return policy.
I’m still early into the book, but in the second chapter, I came across a startling revelation.
Who remembers Paul Moran, a television cameraman on assignment for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in northern Iraq? He was killed March 22, 2003 by a suicide car bomb at a PUK checkpoint by an alleged member of Ansar al-Islam.
It seems there may have been more to Moran than meets the eye. In addition to his work as a cameraman, he was also “a self-described crusader for the Kurdish people in northern Iraq.” He helped an Iraqi scientist and his family defect. And most important, as the obituary in his hometown paper, the Adelaide Advertiser, notes, he was also involved in work for the Rendon Group, an American public relations firm.
Who is the Rendon Group? Stauber and Rampton reveal that in October 2001, the Pentagon awarded the Rendon Group a $397,000 contract “to handle PR aspects of the U.S. military strike in Afghanistan.” They further write that in February 2002, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was using the Rendon Group to help it with the Office of Strategic Influence (OSI). You remember that office, don’t you? It was the the office the DoD hastily — and noisily — disbanded after the _Times_ reported that it would provide foreign reporters with “news items, possibly even false ones.” The Office was met with outrage by journalistic organizations around the world.
Why the outrage? Because it would have endangered journalists by tainting them with Pentagon disinformation; it would have undermined the fledgling media in other countries; because it was almost a foregone conclusion that the American media would have picked up a false story intended for the foreign press; and because it’s just damn undemocratic.
Rendon’s contract wasn’t cancelled, however, the authors say. “Let me just say that we have a confidentiality/nondisclosure agreement in place” with the DoD, said company spokeswoman Jeanne Sklarz.
Getting back to Moran, the _Advertiser_ points out that “Company founder John Rendon flew from the US to attend Mr Moran’s funeral in Adelaide.”
“A close friend, Rob Buchan, said the presence of Mr Rendon — an adviser to the US National Security Council — illustrated the regard in which Mr. Moran was held in U.S. political circles, including the Congress.”
Oh, and another, minor, point that Stauber and Rampton point out: In 1992, the Rendon Group helped organize the Iraqi National Congress. The PR firm, in fact, came up with the name and channeled $12 million in CIA funds to the group between 1992 and 1996. In October 1992, John Rendon chose one of his protégés, Ahmed Chalabi, to head the group.
Just to be clear: Paul Moran, a “journalist” who was killed in northern Iraq was working for the same people who helped found the INC _and_ an office of disinformation that was “disbanded” but apparently kept contracts going long enough to hire Moran and get him into northern Iraq — more than a year after the Office was officially shuttered.
My point is not to disparage Moran or to somehow insinuate he deserved to die. I’m not at all. But I have to admit that I cast a very skeptical glance at his connections to Rendon and his activism for the Kurds — so much that PUK Prime Minister Barham Salih said in a letter that a statue would be erected in Moran’s honor. I have to wonder why a serious journalistic organization such as the Australian Broadcasting Corp. would hire someone with ties to _any_ PR firm, much less one with such tight ties to the U.S. government and the war effort. (Interestingly, the ABC story on Moran makes no mention of his involvement with Rendon.)
I have to wonder why the founder of the Rendon Group would come to a freelancer’s funeral — in the middle of a war, no less. But most of all, if Moran was working for Rendon Group at the time of his death, as John Rendon’s visit strongly suggests, does that mean the suspicions held by many in the blogosphere that the OSI was never shut down at all were right? And if that’s true, who else in the field might be working for that “disbanded” Office of Strategic Influence?
*UPDATE:* Hm. Found this transcript from the DoD dated Nov. 18, 2002. It was made while Rumsfeld was en route to Chile for a hemisphere defense meeting. The section that pertains to this issue reads thusly:
And then there was the office of strategic influence. You may recall that. And “oh my goodness gracious isn’t that terrible, Henny Penny the sky is going to fall.” I went down that next day and said fine, if you want to savage this thing fine I’ll give you the corpse. There’s the name. You can have the name, but I’m gonna keep doing every single thing that needs to be done and I have.
That was intended to be done by that office is being done by that office, NOT by that office in other ways.
Now, that certainly _sounds_ like Rumsfeld just admitted that the OSI was still alive in function if not in its old office. And it means Moran was likely _not_ acting as a journalist when he died, but in some other function. I don’t know what it was, but if he was presenting himself as a journalist while working in some other capacity, he was endangering every other journalist in Iraq. This was — and is — a central argument to making it illegal for the CIA to recruit journalists as spies. Terry Anderson, former Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press, was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years because Islamic militants falsely accused him of being a spy.
This cynical use of journalists is wrong. Journalists, when they’re doing their job, are not only agents of their readers, wriggling their way into situations like Iraq where their readers can’t or won’t go, but they’re also agents of the body politic when they demand answers of the policy makers. Truth matters. Lying to a journalist or using journalists as spies or disinformation conduits is wrong and it subverts democracy because it clogs the media outlets — the circulatory system of the body politic — with crap.
But journalists aren’t off the hook either. Moran should not have worked for Rendon and ABC at the same time. He should have chosen whether to be a Rendon employee and a Kurdish activist or a journalist. The ABC should not have hired him, frankly. At the very least, the broadcaster should have made his ties to Rendon Group public so his viewers could make up their own mind as to his credibility. Journalists should flatly refuse to accept money or work for any group that could lead sources to suspect the reporter is not what he or she seems. It’s one thing for a reporter and a CIA bureau chief to swap information — that happens all the time and it’s probably not so bad. It’s quite another to be on the CIA’s or the Pentagon’s payroll.