Military Review: "Partnering with the Iraqi Media"

by Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark

The current issue of Military Review (via SWJ) contains a quite fascinating article written by Lt Col Frank DeCarvalho, Major Spring Kivett, and Captain Matthew Lindsey entitled "Reaching Out: Partnering with Iraq Media." The article enthusiastically details the efforts of Task Force Marne to use Iraqi media as a more credible source for pro-coalition stories. An Iraqi face on the coalition's stories, they argue, offers a more effective way of influencing Iraqi attitudes than traditional PSYOP techniques: "using native news reporters will increase chances of acceptance by the Iraqi population by relaying credible stories of progress that can resonate favorably through communities." It's worth a look.

The authors explain that traditional PSYOP methods such leaflets, posters, handbills and radio broadcasts are inadequate to the task of influencing Iraqi attitudes: "Iraqi citizens know the information's origin and often question its legitimacy, credibility, and intent." After a while, they point out, "the inherently manipulative PSYOP process... reaches a point of diminishing returns. Inducement requires not just a persuasive message but also a credible source." Backing away from the "inherently manipulative PSYOP process" does not seem to be an option, given that "influencing Iraqis is central to managing a favorable outcome in this war". Instead, this led to an effort to find a more credible source: the Iraqi media.

They found such a credible source in the Iraqi media, they explain, as Task Force Marne "established an Iraqi media section (IMS) to capitalize on Iraqi media capabilities and the advantages of using them." The IMS began with media monitoring functions, and then "expanded its mission to include developing, translating, and disseminating coalition-related stories to Iraqi media outlets." As of today, it has "contacts with 11 television stations, 27 newspaper outlets, and a host of media websites." IMS also has an exclusive contract with Iraqi government's newspaper al-Sabah, and the article offers a lengthy vignette of a program it orchestrated for the government TV station al-Iraqiya. All told, IMS has "conducted 38 battlefield circulations with Iraqi media crews, and it has translated over 300 'good news' stories into Arabic and disseminated them."

While the authors stress repeatedly that their efforts are exclusively public affairs, they acknowledge that the IMS does not work for the Public Affairs office, with its mandate of informing: "instead, it falls under the direction and oversight of the effects coordinator" (i.e. the unit which handles PSYOP and influence operations). The authors insist that this is not significant and that the IMS plays only a public affairs "informational" role - which would be odd, given everything else claimed for the program, but is duly noted. Nevertheless, the stories and their placement are carefully coordinated with the "effects" officers, tightly interwoven with the strategic communications plan, and then their distribution used in part to improve the feedback loop on PSYOP development.

The benefit of this, as they write repeatedly, is "putting an Iraqi face on the story; an Iraqi reporter talking to fellow Iraqis has a much greater effect on the Iraqi psyche than if a coalition reporter told the story." This has worked so well that "the IMS is currently considering hiring independent Iraqi correspondents and developing a sustainable network of informed journalists." Overall, the authors urge that the coalition develop more ways to "support and use the Iraqi media."

Quite interesting. Some might remember the scandal which erupted back in late 2005 when the Lincoln Group's efforts to pay Iraqi newspapers to run pro-US stories were exposed. This isn't quite that, in that the essay claims that the articles are published with full Task Force Marne attribution - though I'd like to know whether that "produced by Task Force Marne" disclaimer is used as universally as claimed. But it is a sustained effort to place US military-produced "good news stories" in the Iraqi media, which falls under the jurisdiction of "effects" and not "public affairs", and which is explicitly cultivating the Iraqi media as a more credible face for its strategic communication efforts.

This should not surprise anyone who follows the information war dimensions of counter-insurgency doctrine, or read various published accounts of specific IO operations in Iraq, but it might provoke some useful discussion. There always seems to be a deep tension between strategic communications and traditional public diplomacy on questions like this, which will likely shape reactions to the Military Review story. Some might respond that since the insurgency uses the media as a "force multiplier", so must the counter-insurgents. Others might argue that there is something inherently objectionable about this kind of use of "independent media" for strategic ends, no matter how overt. Yet others might note similarities to the administration's efforts to shape coverage in the American media.

Some specific questions about this case come to mind. Did the architects of these efforts consider that their efforts might discredit the Iraqi media over time, or that using the media to strategic effect might somehow compromise the independence and freedom of the Iraqi media? Does the disclosure that the IMS has translated and disseminated more than 300 'good news stories' force us to re-evaluate the credibility of "good news stories" published over the last few years in the Iraqi media?

Finally, there's the issue of 'blowback' (when propaganda produced for foreign audiences is recirculated inside the United States). Maj Gen Rick Lynch explains that "targeting the American audience is a PA responsibility, and targeting the Iraqi audience is an effects responsibility." What happens when the disseminated good news report is picked up out of the Iraqi media source, tranlated - perhaps without that "produced by TFM" label - and then becomes the basis for American reporting?

article originally published at http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/2008/07/partnering-with.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey