December 13, 2005 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved.

Buying News in Iraq

By David Mould
Global Beat Syndicate
—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.

If 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.

U.S. 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 credibility?

Key issues, but they fail to answer a nagging question about responsibility: why did the Iraqi journalists take the money?

That 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.

When 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.

In 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Most 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 journalistic experience.

As 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.

Even 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.

Iraq 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.

The 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.

In 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.

David Mould teaches mass communications at Ohio University. Since 1995, he has worked as a media trainer and consultant, mostly in developing countries in Asia.

© 2005 The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of The Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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