- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

FORT MEADE, Md. — “Credibility is everything in our business.”

That’s what I told the latest batch of military public affairs specialists to graduate from the Pentagon’s 12-week course for enlisted men and women in journalism, photojournalism and public affairs.

The Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade, Md., invited me to speak after they found out that I, too, was a graduate, way back in 1970, when “DINFOS” was still at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis and I, at the time, was its only draftee.

Returning to DINFOS in this new wartime generation brought what Yogi Berra might have called “deja vu all over again.” In my day, the Vietnam War was not going well. The Nixon administration and its surrogates were blaming the media for “losing” it. Nowadays, the Bush administration and its surrogates blame the media for the mess in Iraq.

“For every act of violence, there is encouraging progress in Iraq that’s hard to capture on the evening news,” President Bush told a news conference March 21.

Earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney complained on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation” that “there’s a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad.” Yup, constant car bombs do create a “constant sort of perception.”

Of course, there’s nothing new about leaders criticizing the media, including the military media. I was proud to have one of my news briefs published in Stars and Stripes in Europe, the military newspaper that delighted soldiers and infuriated Gen. George Patton by publishing Bill Mauldin’s irreverent Willie and Joe cartoons. “Scurrilous attempts to undermine military discipline,” Patton said in a letter to the paper.

Yet, having experienced life on the military side of the media fence, I appreciate the frustrations of Gayle Taylor, wife of a military broadcast journalist, during Mr. Bush’s March 22 town hall forum in Wheeling, W.Va. She said she wished the networks would broadcast some of the cheery video stories of progress in Iraq her husband produced while stationed there. Instead, she complained, the media “just want to focus on some more bloodshed, or they just want to focus on how they don’t agree with you and what you’re doing.” The line brought predictable applause from the crowd, as if bashing the media supports our troops. I think reporting the truth supports our troops, and sometimes the truth is pretty grim.

In Vietnam, the “ground truth,” as intelligence agents call unspun facts, was that we lost the war because of flawed policy decisions, the weaknesses of the Saigon regime and the lack of a clear plan for victory. When those flaws became apparent to Americans back home, support for the war dimmed. Now, those same flaws show up in Iraq from time to time. Blaming the messenger won’t fix them.

Neither will cash. If Iraq’s fledgling democracy has a new enemy, in my view, it is the Bush administration’s casual attitude toward secret payments a U.S. contractor called the Lincoln Group made to Iraqi editors. According to the Los Angeles Times in December, the payments resulted in, among other things, the publishing of pro-U.S. news stories as if they had come from ordinary journalists, not American flacks.

Of course, possible bribes ultimately undermine the U.S. effort by raising suspicions about any pro-U.S. story that any Iraqi journalists publish, legitimate or not.

Yet, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently sees no problem. He recently praised the propaganda effort in a newspaper column as a clever use of “nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people.” Accurate? According to whom? Well, the administration, of course. Why would any administration steer us wrong?

“Credibility is everything,” I told the DINFOS grads. “You will be judged by the respect you pay to facts.” Real facts.

That’s true whether you’re a reporter or a public affairs spokesman. Journalists quickly learn which spokesmen they can trust. The public quickly learns which journalists they can trust. Lose that trust and you might as well leave the business.

And, one more piece of advice, young graduates: Be sure to get the names spelled right. A lot of us old geezers still have trouble with that one, but it means a lot to the person who owns the name.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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