AP says it obtained an internal memo written by Dorrance Smith, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, that said the Pentagon wants to put out its own version of the news from Iraq to correct what he sees as inaccurate reporting.
Smith's memo says the new operation would have several departments. They include one to provide quick responses to independent news accounts, another one to enlist influential politicians and interest groups to speak to the media on the Pentagon's behalf, and still another to post the military's version of news on the Internet.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often publicly complains about the quality of news coverage, saying reporters focus too much on the violence in Iraq and ignore stories about how U.S. forces help Iraqis rebuild their country.
Americans' perception of how the war is going has soured in the past year. Polls conducted in advance of the November 7 congressional elections find a majority don't approve of President George W. Bush's Iraq policy.United Front
Trying to influence news coverage is nothing new, especially during a war. But the relationship between the U.S. Defense Department and the media has changed dramatically during the last 50 years, says Peter Kuznick, a professor of history at American University in Washington who specializes in World War II.
During that war, President Franklin Roosevelt wanted the media to cover the U.S. war effort in a positive light. Kuznick says that the media happily complied because it believed the country was fighting a good war against "fascism and racism and militarism."
"There could have been much more critical analysis about other things, for example the internment of the Japanese, some of the ways in which the war was being fought," Kuznick notes. "The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which many people raised questions about, did not come till the very tail end of the war. Perhaps, had that come earlier, it might have led to a more skeptical attitude on the part of the press."
But the atomic bombs did bring an end to the war, and many people at the time believed that they were justified because they made unnecessary an allied invasion of Japan that would have prolonged the war and led to more deaths on both sides.End Of Innocence
Kuznick says this supportive role of the press in the United States persisted until the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson expanded U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By this point, he says, the press began having doubts about how the White House was characterizing the war effort.
"It was during the Johnson administration that that term 'the credibility gap' emerged," Kuznick says. "The Vietnam War had a very sobering and chilling effect on the media. There was such a gulf between the reality on the ground and what the public was being told that a very skeptical attitude [among reporters] developed."
Kuznick says the Bush administration's effort to control the news is nothing new. He says government agencies, particularly the Defense Department, are always trying to figure out ways to limit damage from bad news. This time, he says, Rumsfeld's Pentagon is simply trying to do it more systematically and efficiently.
In fact, Defense Department press secretary Eric Ruff says that's exactly what the new program intends to do. He told AP that it's meant only to "set the record straight" and provide information to the media quickly.
Ruff says it would be wrong to describe the effort as an "information operation," because that implies that it's all about propaganda. He notes that Rumsfeld has previously criticized the department's own communications capabilities, and that this program is designed to improve them.