Foreign Policy Blogs

Military News Bias

A consistent theme running throughout this blog has been the Defense Department's slow and steady encroachment on activities traditionally performed by our diplomatic bureau, the State Department.

A recent article from the USA Today reveals a new aspect of this phenomenon:

“The Pentagon is setting up a global network of foreign-language news websites, including an Arabic site for Iraqis, and hiring local journalists to write current events stories and other content that promote U.S. interests and counter insurgent messages.

The news sites are part of a Pentagon initiative to expand “Information Operations” on the Internet. Neither the initiative nor the Iraqi site,, has been disclosed publicly. “Military News Bias

I highly recommend reading the full article, which discusses these programs in more detail and some of the history behind them.

Engaging foreign audiences is, of course, a laudable activity. But I have three major concerns with this new initiative.

First, and fundamentally, why is the Defense Department the government agency administering this program? What's wrong with the State Department's Public Diplomacy bureau? The Pentagon's initiative clearly falls into one of this bureau's specific goals: to “isolate and marginalize the violent extremists; confront their ideology of tyranny and hate. Undermine their efforts to portray the west as in conflict with Islam by empowering mainstream voices and demonstrating respect for Muslim cultures and contributions.”

Sure public diplomacy, as administered by State under the Bush administration's direction, has taken criticism for not healing the US’ tarnished image or effectively combating violent extremism. But why would this activity work any better if the Defense Department does it? 

I see two plausible answers to my own question (and please chime in if you have other ideas). First, these programs will get more funding if they are placed under the control of the Defense Department‚ a much better-funded agency overall. State's bare-boned budget makes it difficult enough to carry out its primary diplomatic functions, let alone shoulder the burden of new initiatives.

Second, in the age of the “global war on terror,” some forms of strategic international communication are coming to be categorized as “counter-terrorism” measures, severed from the larger portfolio of public diplomacy, and plugged in to more specialized agencies.

It appears that, after some key congressional testimonies by Defense (House Armed Services Committee 11/15/2007), State and intelligence officials alike, legislators have come to recognize that Islamic extremists are utilizing the Internet as a tool for recruitment and the transmission of ideology better than we can utilize it to counteract them. As the nominee for Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy James Glassman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “Our enemies are eating our lunch in terms of getting the word out in digital technology,”

[A recently-released Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs report, which draws heavily from the testimony of key intelligence and defense officials, focuses specifically on “how violent Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda are using the Internet to enlist followers into the global violent Islamist terrorist movement and to increase support for the movement, ranging from ideological support, to fundraising, and ultimately to planning and executing terrorist attacks.”]

Still, the State Department has its own counter-terrorism bureau, why not have that bureau partner with the bureau of Public Diplomacy to implement this strategy?

This leads me to the second of my three major concerns: there is something fundamentally wrong with the military assuming the responsibility of communicating internationally on behalf of the US. This is a civilian-lead country, people in other countries should deal with our civilian collective self.

I can see why Defense would want to cut out the “middle man.” This way, editorial decisions can go directly up the chain of command, and news reporting can take on a hard, rather than a soft, power tone. Call it military news bias, similar to its liberal and conservative incarnations. But let's be honest, the US military is the last place we should look to produce objective news.

My third concern stems from my second. By paying local journalists to write flattering stories about the US in local news media the department is asking foreign journalists to violate their code of ethics

How would we like it if the Pakistani military were paying American journalists to write positive stories about Pakistan in our news media? An American journalist would say, “no way, I am not taking money to write biased stories.” But if you were a struggling journalist living in a developing country–or even a failed state–with widespread violence  (just like the countries that Defense is targeting)-if you needed the money to feed your family I bet you’d sacrifice your journalistic integrity too.

Back in 2005 when the Defense Department contracted a PR firm to place favorable news stories in the Iraqi press, Members of Congress reportedly chastised the Pentagon, saying the practice could “erode the independence of Iraqi media” (Republican John Warner), and the Pentagon stopped the program. That might be a good idea–again.

In the end, do these programs really get to the root of the problem? Yes, the Internet makes it possible for extremist ideology to spread like wildfire. But it also poses the same opportunity for good news about the US to leap across borders.

Rather than pay off journalists to create some false sense of popularity among foreign audiences, why not put the emphasis on implementing real policies that help raise people's standards of living, increase stability in their region, and, overall, give reporters some good news involving the US to write about?



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.