Stars and Stripes, “the independent news source for the U.S. military community,” reported Monday that the Pentagon hired an outside public relations firm to conduct background checks for journalists seeking embedded status in Afghanistan. The firm, Rendon Group, determines whether a reporter’s past coverage was “positive,” “negative” or “neutral” compared to mission objectives.
On Tuesday the US Military countered these claims. “There is no policy that stipulates in any way that embedding should be based in any way on a person’s work,” Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told the AP.
This latest exchange highlights a growing discord between war correspondents and the U.S. military, particularly its PR arm. The military’s relationship with journalists stationed in Afghanistan is currently governed by The Rendon Group, a self-professed “perception management” firm. Though an internal DOD investigation found no supporting evidence, many of Rendon’s critics maintain that the firm supplied the false reports of WMDs used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Since the U.S. and NATO offices of public affairs in Kabul merged recently, more people have access to embed requests, as well as media information and resources supplied by Rendon, including the controversial reporter profiles.
In June, Heath Druzin, a Stars and Stripes reporter, was barred from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division because the reporter “refused to highlight” good news that the division’s military commanders wanted to emphasize. Stars and Stripes editorial director, Terry Leonard, considers Rendon’s recent “censorship.”
“We have not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a public affairs officer in Kabul. “It’s so we know with whom we’re working.”
“That’s the government doing things to put out the message they want to hear and that’s not the way journalism is meant to work in this country,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Mathias added that the military is moving away from the “positive-negative” spectrum, and beginning to base their assessments on factual accuracy. “If it’s accurate, that’s a successful news story, whether good or bad,” she said.
Journalists like Druzin who are “dis-embedded,” are still free to report from Afghanistan. But as Wired reporter David Axe writes, “If Druzin wants to cover Mosul, BBC-style, by traveling to the city, alone, on Stars & Stripes’ dime, there’s nothing to stop him… except the extreme danger of so-called “unilateral” reporting gigs.”