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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 17:50 GMT
Pentagon gears up for new media war
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

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The Pentagon's new effort to influence media coverage of the war in Iraq is an example of how governments react when a war is not going too well.

They begin to think it is not the war that is the problem, but the presentation of it.

The media, being the messengers, get the blame, not the message itself.

The plan, detailed in a memo seen by the Associated Press news agency, is for a rapid response unit that would "correct the record" in the 24/7 news cycle that exists today - including, crucially, on the internet. One aim, AP says, seems to be to deflect criticism of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself.

It is on the internet that blogs and other sites rapidly spread information, sometimes as fact and sometimes as rumour, and build up pressure points of opinion. These are then reflected in the mainstream media.

There would also be a list of favourite speakers or "surrogates" who would be offered to broadcast media, especially to the US talk shows, where fast appearances and faster opinions matter.

Whether this will make much difference is open to question.

Insurgent videos

The insurgents in Iraq are brilliant at using the media, especially the internet, and it will not be easy for the Pentagon to counter the impact these videos can have.

An example of the way insurgents use the media can be seen on a site run by Memri, the Middle East Media Research Institute. This group monitors Arab TV stations from Jerusalem and jihadist websites at its headquarters in Washington.

In this case, it has downloaded from a jihadist website an eight-minute video of a US ammunition dump on fire in Baghdad on 10 October. It is a spectacular display, well-packaged and accompanied by a commentary praising the fighters who carried out the attack.

Mr Rumsfeld signalled the Pentagon move in a speech to the Foreign Relations Council in New York in February. He said: "Our enemies have skilfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, have not adapted.

US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in Pentagon
Rumsfeld says he is "kept up at night" by media war worries

"Today we're engaged in the first war in history - unconventional and irregular as it may be - in an era of e-mails, blogs, cell phones, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras, a global internet with no inhibitions, cell phones, hand-held video cameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television. There's never been a war fought in this environment before."

He returned to the theme of the media deficit in August: "That's the thing that keeps me up at night", he told an audience of naval personnel.

Cronkite moment

The Pentagon, however, has tried before to influence the media, especially the Iraqi media, and fell on its face.

In 2005, the New York Times revealed that the Department of Defense was paying a public relations company to write and place articles in Iraqi newspapers. One of these had the lyrical line that "the sands are blowing toward a democratic Iraq," dismissing sceptical Western views that democracy was not working in Iraq.

This latest effort is supposed to be more open, but also more fleet of foot, and the memo compared it to the kind of political operation run by Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election campaign, in which immediate responses were made to criticism from opponents.

A cautionary tale comes from the Vietnam War. There, the war was lost when viewers in the living room realised what was happening on the battlefield. No amount of spin could change it.

The turning point in the media war came when the veteran CBS News presenter, Walter Cronkite, went to Vietnam after the Tet offensive in 1968. He came back and declared that there was "stalemate".

This is how he ended his TV broadcast:

"To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

"On the off-chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations.

"But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors but as an honourable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

"This is Walter Cronkite. Good night."

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