America’s daily military paper Stars and Stripes has been doing some nice investigative journalism of late on the issue of censorship and embedded journalists in Afghanistan.

In June, one of the paper’s reporters was barred from being embedded with a unit in Iraq after the military’s public affairs department found he had “refused to highlight” positive news angles the army was trying to push and “would not answer questions about stories he was writing”.

Following up, last week the paper broke this piece, claiming the Pentagon is employing PR firm The Rendon Group (whose past hits include providing American flags to Kuwaitis to wave for cameras after the liberation of Kuwait City and running a covert anti-Saddam propaganda campaign in Iraq) to run background checks on journalists seeking to be embedded with US forces in Afghanistan, to determine whether their coverage had been “positive”, “negative” or “neutral” compared with mission objectives.

The military initially acknowledged the practice, but insisted it had “not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography … It’s so we know with whom we’re working”.

But shortly after, the backtracking began, with a Department of Defence spokesman claiming the program had been discontinued in October last year.

Yesterday, however, the paper obtained documents it said proves the Pentagon and Rendon are still running the checks — with information referencing articles as recently as May — and published extracts of intelligence on un-named journalists, including a lovely pie-chart created to graph one journalist’s positive versus negative coverage of the war:

Today, the US military has caved slightly, acknowledging the profiles do exist, but claiming the “positive”, “negative”, “neutral” rankings are no longer used, and that the entire program is under review.

Although the mainstream media and American public are unlikely to respond to the story with the level of outrage it perhaps deserves, it’s always nice to see investigative journalism soldiering on (boom-tish! I’m here all week, folks) in the face of shrinking resources and the age of churnalism — and it’s especially heartening to see a paper such as Stars and Stripes, which is funded by and run out of the Department of Defence, can still maintain such high levels of editorial independence.

Peter Fray

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