Sep 1, 2009

The spin cycle*,**

Public relations expert Eric Dezenhall yawns at last week's revelations from Stars and Stripes that the Pentagon used a private PR firm to screen journalists who wanted to embed with military units in Afghanistan. In a post entitled "Pentagon Caught, uh, Promoting Its Interests," Dezenhall tells us:
Profile-gate is emblematic of a pandemic of "news" stories where the publication of internal memos by cultural villains, usually corporations or industry associations, outlining programs that - push back from your computer screens because what you are about to read is not for the faint-of-heart -- PROMOTE THEIR INTERESTS!
Clever. But in addition to being a cultural villain to some, the Pentagon is prosecuting a war, and the central question driving the stories was whether the profiles were used to reward positive coverage and punish negative coverage of that war. Maybe Stars and Stripes got a little breathless at times, but answering that question promotes our interests.

Speaking of which, freelance journalist Jason Motlagh, writing at, says the military denied his request to embed with a special forces unit after the private PR firm gave him a negative review:
I recently applied to embed with U.S. Special Forces to cover a new initiative to raise and train civilian militias in Taliban strongholds. After waiting for more than a month for a response, I was accidentally copied on an e-mail sent by the public-affairs department to the presiding officer who would give or deny approval. A color-coded pie chart showed that 47% of my stories were deemed negative, 47% neutral and 6% positive. In a section titled "Key Takeaway Points," it was mentioned that my stories have been lengthy, with plenty of context and sources. It was added, however, that "most notably, he tends to quote experts" from a British think tank "which has been critical of the coalition mission and the Afghan government." A day after the e-mail — which included the Rendon analysis — was sent to the officer, my application was rejected without explanation.
*Update: Journalist Thomas Ricks also nonplussed by the Stars and Stripes stories.

**Update II: New York Times editorial board applauds the decision to dump the Rendon Group and encourages the Pentagon to focus its energy on conducting the war rather than shaping the story.

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