WASHINGTON: In light of revelations that other government agencies paid journalists to promote US policies, Lawrence Di Rita, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, has asked the Department of Defense (DoD) inspector general for an audit of all relevant contracts.
But Di Rita's actions might already be dredging up questions about the DoD's PR practices overseas.
"Given the situation at the Department of Education, it's only prudent for us to make sure that we're not doing anything that wouldn't be deemed appropriate," said Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
But shortly after the request was made, CNN began reporting on seemingly independent foreign news websites that are actually sponsored by the DoD.
A Balkans website, Southeast European Times, for example, features material written by journalists who are paid by the US government. Another DoD site called Magharebia targets the Maghreb region, but does not yet have paid correspondents, according to the Associated Press.
Both websites link to a disclaimer that reveals they are sponsored by the DoD. According to the AP, the US European Command pays the journalists through Anteon, an information technology company based in Fairfax, VA.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, compared the websites to government VNRs that have been cited as illegal by the Government Accountability Office for not adequately identifying themselves as government products.
"They've actually hidden the disclaimer as much as they can," Rosenstiel said of the websites. "There's a reason: They want it to look like a website [and] create the impression that it's not a government site. All of this is hitchhiking on the credibility of independent journalism."
Lt. Col. Derek Kaufman, a European Command spokesman, told the AP that it does not edit the stories written by journalists for the Southeast European Times, but it does review the stories and sometimes change the headlines to reinforce the US message.
In a recent appearance on CNN's Late Night Edition, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not believe the websites violated the President's order to not pay journalists to promote his agenda.
"[Journalists] weren't told what to write," he said. "It had nothing to do with an agenda."
But Rosenstiel said journalists' contribution to such websites undermines the goal of free press.
"The press is independent," he said. "Once it's no longer independent, it's no longer press; it's an arm of the government."