As concern in the Defense Department mounts over eroding public support for the Iraq war, the Pentagon has launched a rapid-response public relations effort to rebut news stories that officials believe are inaccurate or misleading.
Although all administrations have been critical of the media, most have avoided regular, ongoing public fights with journalists. But in recent weeks the Bush administration has shown a willingness to fight over facts and reporters’ analysis of news events.
The Defense Department’s rapid-response efforts echo an initiative called “Setting the Record Straight,” in which the White House identifies what it says are news reports’ inaccuracies or quotations out of context. Among the first results of the Pentagon response is a new “For the Record” section of the Defense Department’s website, www.defenselink.mil.
On Wednesday the section contained critiques of a Washington Post article, a Newsweek cover story and two New York Times editorials, as well as a list of “Five Myths About the War on Terror” that it said were “some of the more prominent ones in the public dialogue.”
Pentagon officials say the 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,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan G. Whitman. “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, Washington-based senior fellow for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy.
But Kalb said as long as the war was going badly, the media coverage was 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 were dedicating staffers to the effort but would not specify how many would be hired or transferred. They also declined to say how much was going to be spent on the effort.
In an Oct. 3 memo released this week, J. Dorrance Smith, the assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs, outlined four focus areas for his department: distributing information on newer media forms like podcasts and YouTube; increased television and radio bookings; better assistance to military analysts and other “surrogates"; and the rapid-response group.
Pentagon Press Secretary Eric Ruff said the changes were part of an effort to improve the D-plus rating that Rumsfeld had given the public affairs operation.
“We’re trying to do better than a D-plus,” Ruff said this week.
“Al Qaeda has demonstrated time and again how they can use the Internet. We are, very frankly, behind the curve.”
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.