Buying News in Iraq
By David Mould
Global Beat Syndicate
ATHENS, Ohio—Revelations about secret payments to Iraqi
journalists for running “good news” stories about the U.S. military
have prompted charges that the administration is buying the news.
it is, it is not getting much for its money. We do not win hearts and
minds by hiring a Washington PR firm to dole out monthly stipends to
“friendly” journalists and pay newspapers to run stories written by
military information officers. The decision makers involved must have
been working out of some Cold War Psychological Operations playbook.
press coverage of the affair has followed a predictable formula: who
knew what, and when? How far up the chain of command does
responsibility go? How will the affair affect President Bush’s
issues, but they fail to answer a nagging question about
responsibility: why did the Iraqi journalists take the money?
question should trouble journalists reporting the story and those now
training Iraqi journalists to be professional and independent. Based on
my own experience in media training in the developing world, I think
Iraqi journalists accept payments for stories for two reasons. First,
they need the money. In most developing countries, journalists are
neither well respected nor well paid, and except for a handful of
national columnists and TV anchors, most find it hard to make ends
meet. Outside capital cities, they are even worse off. From Chad to
Cambodia, average monthly earnings of less than $50 for provincial
journalists are common.
journalists are poor, abstract notions of journalism ethics seem a
luxury they cannot afford. Many journalists take part-time public
relations jobs, and cross the line easily to write a press release one
day and run it in the newspaper the next.
Kyrgyzstan, journalists debating an ethics code found themselves at
loggerheads over what seems a clear-cut issue -- a ban on selling
advertising. Provincial journalists agreed that selling ads compromised
their integrity, but said they needed to continue doing so until the
economy improved and they could earn a living wage.
only way poorly paid radio correspondents in rural Mongolia can cover a
story outside town is to hitch a ride with a mining company vehicle.
The payback is a positive article about the company building schools
and medical facilities. Any reporter trying to cover environmental
issues will likely be left at the roadside.
second reason for compromising journalistic ethics is cultural;
journalists in the developing world have long been accustomed to
serving the political powers-that-be, and are paid to do so.
authoritarian regimes follow the Soviet media model. Media are
state-owned and journalism is a government job. Newspaper editors and
national TV and radio directors are political appointees, often without
paid civil servants, they promote state policies and programs. They
report official statistics on cotton harvest and coal production (even
if they doubt them), deny their country has AIDS cases, dutifully cover
the daily activities of their country’s leaders, and blame most
problems on foreigners.
in countries where the state has lost its media monopoly, hidden
payments for coverage are common, and the line between advertising and
real news is blurred. In the 1990s, privately owned magazines in Russia
offered politicians and businessmen a sliding scale for positive
coverage -- a certain amount for a single-column profile on an inside
page, premium prices for a lead or cover story. In other countries,
international agencies and non-governmental organizations “sponsor”
newspaper features and TV programs that promote their activities.
is not much different from other developing countries where
politicians, companies and organizations buy news or put journalists on
the payroll. In the Saddam Hussein era, journalists were paid to serve
the government. Now they are simply serving a new master -- the U.S.
military -- and are paid to do so.
challenge in Iraq is to change the journalistic culture. Our government
should focus on building independent media, training journalists and
promoting ethical practices. In the short term, covert payments may
increase the quantity of “good news” in the Iraqi press, but they
perpetuate a corrupt journalistic culture.
the long term, the price of buying news is far too high: we subvert the
core democratic principles we are trying to instill, and the value of
all pro-American articles, which have been tainted for years to come in
the minds of all Iraqis.