Washington, 5 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Donald Rumsfeld said the news media are putting too much emphasis on bad news in Iraq and too little on the positive, such as the building of schools and the country's growing economy.
In an appearance at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, Rumsfeld noted that far more Americans are killed in a single year in highway accidents than have died in nearly three years of war in Iraq. Yet he said the news media put greater emphasis on the deaths of more than 2,100 U.S. soldiers there.
Another example Rumsfeld cited was the report, first made by the "Los Angeles Times" last week, about the planting of stories in the Iraqi media. "That story has been pounded in the media, it's very attractive for the media because it's about the media and they like that," he said. "But we don't know what the facts are yet. [Senior U.S. commander in Iraq] General [George] Casey's conducting an investigation. And the problem is, the story goes out all over the world, over and over and over again, and we're still trying to find out what the facts are."
Like Warner, Rumsfeld said that so far it appears that the "public diplomacy" program was designed to counter anti-U.S. propaganda. He said America's enemies in Iraq and around the world portray the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the most negative terms.
In the meantime, Rumsfeld said, the media should not define success in Iraq as "the absence of terrorist attacks." Instead, he said, they should report that Iraq has a growing communications infrastructure, including newspapers and cell phones, and that its stock market is thriving.
Ultimately, the secretary said, the Iraqi people are optimistic about their future. But he said the problem is using public diplomacy to counter what he called lies spread by Al-Qaeda and other U.S. enemies.
Rumsfeld conceded that Americans are still learning how to conduct public diplomacy effectively because the United States always has been isolated from the rest of the world. He noted that it is situated between two oceans and therefore its citizens have no pressing need to learn other cultures and other languages to conduct daily affairs.
"As a people, we [Americans] are not highly skilled in languages, we are not highly skilled in knowledge of other cultures, and that's a problem. And we've been working at the Pentagon for several years to try to shift the language training into languages that are going to be important in the period ahead, to increase the number of people who develop regional and area expertise and to see that they are properly rewarded," Rumsfeld said.
That argument isn't very convincing to Mark Feldstein, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University in Washington. In an interview with RFE/RL, he acknowledged that public opinion is a front in any war, and that propaganda often is a way to mold it. But he said paying money to Iraqi newspapers and journalists is not the proper way to win the approval of the people.
"This was propaganda that the U.S. was putting out, planting in a deceptive way, paying off newspapers, paying off reporters, to plant this pro-American propaganda. I think there is a real irony here in that we're supposed to be over in Iraq to promote democracy and freedom and freedom of the press, and here we are subverting this very freedom of the press by this kind of propaganda campaign," Feldstein said.
Feldstein said it is perfectly acceptable for journalists to withhold certain details from their stories, or even entire stories, in the interest of national security. Likewise, he said, it is equally acceptable for governments at war to engage in public diplomacy and even propaganda in their efforts to achieve victory.
But the intersection of journalism and propaganda in the current case is not acceptable, according to Feldstein. "The overt use of propaganda -- that's for governments to do or decide upon, but it's not for journalists to engage in," he said. "And journalists in Iraq have been clearly involved with the American government in some fashion of propaganda."
Feldstein said the United States has long contended that truth is on its side, and on the side of any liberal democracy. But he said that if truth is on America's side, there is no need for it to resort to covert propaganda.