Last week, I wondered whether the NYT— while advancing the military’s play-for-play story—ended up smearing a non-propaganda program, the kind that funds budding journalism and should be celebrated.
To recap: The Times—in a story written by Jeff Gerth—reported in a Page One takeout that the administration’s (ineffective) story-planting habits extended to Afghanistan. Gerth noted the existence of a U.S. military-funded newspaper as well radio station. Then, he writes this:
The United States Agency for International Development also masks its role at times. AID finances about 30 radio stations in Afghanistan but keeps that from listeners. The agency has distributed tens of thousands of iPod-like audio devices in Iraq and Afghanistan that play prepackaged civic messages, but it does so through a contractor that promises ''there is no U.S. footprint.''
In my post last week, I wondered, “Is what USAID doing at all analogous to the Pentagon/Lincoln Group's habit of planting stories? Is USAID paying for play? Is it involved in the production of stories? Is it directly funding the stations?”
I suspected that at least some of the answers were no, but the Times left it unclear:
AID does not locally disclose that dozens of
Afghanistan radio stations get its support, through grants to a London-based nonprofit group, Internews. (AID discloses its support in public documents in Washington, most of which can be found globally on the Internet.)
The AID representative in
Afghanistan, in an e-mail message relayed by Peggy O'Ban, an agency spokeswoman, explained the nondisclosure: ''We want to maintain the perception (if not the reality) that these radio stations are in fact fully independent.''
There seem to be two issues here: 1) Transparency: Is the
agency hiding its role in funding the stations? 2)
What I learned: The Times struck out on both counts: No, U.S. has not tried to hush up its funding of the program. And no, the U.S. has never tried to sway the coverage of the stations.
Internews has scads of funders, including the not-so-U.S.-propaganda-friendly George Soros. Nor is USAID the only one for Afghan station project. Nevertheless, Internews’ regional director, Ivan Sigal, told me, “We have mentioned USAID support many times on the air in Afghanistan, both as acknowledgement of general funding, and in response to listener questions on call-in programs. We never conceal the source of our funding when asked.”
That jibes with USAID’s disclosure language from the grant itself:
It is USAID's policy to inform the public as fully as possible of its programs and activities. The grantee is encouraged to give public notice of the receipt of this grant and, from time to time, to announce progress and accomplishments.
(Gerth, whom I emailed with, has a different view of the reality here. [See end of this post.] He told me that the radio stations’ funding from the U.S. was indeed not made “to viewers or listeners.” We obviously have heard different things. I would only note that Internews—who I spoke with—actually runs the program. And one of Internews’ complaints is that Gerth never spoke to them. [Update: Gerth emails again to say that he spoke with one "David Trilling" from Internews. According to Internews, Trilling has not worked there since the summer. )
As for the quote from a U.S. AID official saying the governments “wants to maintain the perception (if not the reality)” that the stations are independent, the Times seems to have taken that out of context or perhaps there was just a misunderstanding. I spoke to a USAID official who explained that the agency certainly has not discourage stations from disclosing the funding, it’s just that the agency didn’t require as tightly as they do in some other projects. (Ex, “This highway brought to you by USAID!”) Whatever the case there, the stations—contrary to the NYT’s coverage—do appear to have disclosed their USAID contributions, on-air and off.
Then there’s the other question: What did the Afghan journalism consist of? Was it filled with pay-for-play propaganda? Has the U.S. ever exerted any editorial control of it?
The Times doesn’t explicitly say so, but it leaves the impression that the U.S. does indeed maintain some control:
Recipients are required to adhere to standards. If a news organization produced ''a daily drumbeat of criticism of the American military, it would become an issue,'' said James Kunder, an AID assistant administrator. He added that in combat zones, the issue of disclosure was a balancing act between security and assuring credibility.
Which sounds damning. But I spoke with officials from both USAID and Internews who said USAID has never exerted any editorial control over the project. The whole radio project—which was originally proposed by Internews not the U.S. government—is, unlike, say, the Lincoln group’s effort, focused on giving locals the tools and training to do their own journalism. As one Internews regional director told me, “The stations are independent - they own frequency licenses, and they have final say over what goes on the air.”
I don’t have any examples of programming of the radio stations. But here are two stories that recently ran on an Internews-funded Afghan news site: “JOURNALISTS BARRED FROM COVERING OATH-TAKING CEREMONY,” or “Middle School Torched in Paktika.” That doesn’t sound too much like U.S. propaganda, does it?
The Times and Gerth, in other words, implicitly conflated a program meant to fund independent journalists with one meant to decrease the independence of journalists. In the process, the paper ended up undermining the very type of “public diplomacy” the U.S. should be supporting—the kind that give Afghan and others the tools for discerning and conveying the truth.
No surprise, I’m not the only one who thinks the Afghanistan
programs, deserve to be replicated rather than lumped in with the Lincoln
Group. Consider a recent report
from the ShorensteinCenter at Kennedy School of Government that details
The American effort in
Afghanistan, in contrast, shows that officials from the State Department’s Office of Transition Initiatives have developed relatively effective strategies for helping independent media develop in foreign countries. While not perfect, the American-funded Internews radio network, the Radio Arman and Tolo TV project, Killid Media Group and Pajhwok News Agency all appear to be elements of the “vibrant free press” that the United States hopes to create in the country.
The writer of that report: David Rhode, who was taking a short break from his regular job as a South Asia correspondent for…the New York Times.
P.S. Internews has written the NYT’s letters editor and hasn’t heard back, nor has it heard back from the ombudsman.
As mentioned, I emailed the Times’ Jeff Gerth about all this. His full response, below-the-fold.
From NYT reporter Jeff Gerth:
You seem to be anxious to knock down points not made in the
1. Editorial control: piece didn't say USAID exercised editorial control just that they kept quiet the US AID role.
2. Kunder's quote comes in a sentence that begins with "if," which suggests it involves a hypothetical situation.
3. As for the denial of being "misleading" because funding is disclosed in press releases: the article says AID discloses the funding, just not to viewers or listeners. I doubt radio listeners in Afghanistan read press releases.
4. As for the multiple funding issue: that was not addressed in the piece as edited, though it was addressed in earlier versions of the piece. In that version there was a discussion involving Kunder and someone from the Reuters Foundation about the value of multilateral sponsors.
To summarize: the USAID section was the last and smallest part of a piece about covert information activities, focusing on DOD. USAID was included because its role is also masked to listeners/users in many cases. USAID's explanation for this non-disclosure, from its Afghan director, was included in the piece and speaks for itself. (They told me they asked for and received a waiver from their disclosure policies.) You might seek out the USAID funded poll in Afghanistan last spring that found that the credibility of an openly branded American information product ---the Voice of America--- was very low, about 11 percent I recall, compared to the BBC, somewhere in the mid 50's I believe. That helps explain why contractors talk about their ability to keep the US footprint invisible.
Umansky's response: Gerth is right, USAID was not the main thrust of the story. But it was mentioned up high and central to the main news in the Times' piece: that the propaganda effort extended Afghanistan. (TimesSelect subscribers can evaluate that for themselves.) In any case, the relevant issue is whether the references were accurate and fair. I still don't think so. US AID does not seem to have "kept quiet" about its role, nor does it seem to have pushed the grantees to do so.