WASHINGTON – As concern in the Defense Department mounts over increasingly negative coverage of the Iraq war, the Pentagon has launched a new rapid-response public-relations effort to rebut news stories that officials say are inaccurate or misleading.
Although all presidential administrations have been critical of the news media, most have avoided regular, ongoing public fights with journalists. But in recent weeks the Bush administration has shown a new willingness to fight over facts and reporters’ analyses of news events.
The Defense Department’s rapid-response efforts echo a White House initiative called “Setting the Record Straight,” which counters news reports by accusing them of inaccuracies or of quotations taken out of context.
Among the first results of the Pentagon response is a new “For the Record” section of the Defense Department’s Web site, www.defenselink.mil. The site currently features critiques of a Washington Post news article, a Newsweek cover story and two New York Times editorials as well as a list of “Five Myths about the War on Terror.”
Pentagon officials say the new effort is not in response to negative coverage of the war, but rather an attempt to adapt to new technologies and find ways to communicate with the American public and international audiences.
“We’ve always thought it is important to go out and correct the record,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “If we are doing it more aggressively, it is because we understand in this information age it is easy for wrong information to be perpetuated.”
The effort shows Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s frustration with increasingly negative coverage of the war, said Marvin Kalb, a Washington-based senior fellow for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. But Kalb said as long as the war is going badly, the news coverage is sure to be negative.
“It is not a matter of improving communication; it is a matter of the reality of the war,” Kalb said. “The effective response has to be in the policy you pursue, not in the way the policy is covered.
“Rumsfeld is not the first government official who turns on the news at night and throws a bottle of scotch at the TV.”
Pentagon officials said they had hired staff members for the new effort but refused to say how many. They also declined to say how much it would cost.