Last week, Stars and Stripes' Charlie Reed broke the story that the Pentagon had contracted with a DC public relations firm called the Rendon Group to vet would-be embedded journalists and offer the Pentagon a profile based upon "whether their past coverage has portrayed the U.S. military in a positive light." The matter drew considerable attention over the ensuing week. Seven days later, Stars And Stripes reports that this contract is now canceled.
"The Bagram Regional Contracting Center intends to execute a termination of the Media Analyst contract," belonging to The Rendon Group, said Col. Wayne Shanks, chief of public affairs for International Security Assistance Forces-Afghanistan.
"The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone. As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon's support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission," said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, in an e-mail sent Sunday to Stars and Stripes.
"I have been here since early June and at no time has anyone who worked for me ever conducted themselves in a manner as your newspaper alleged. I cannot and will not speculate on the past, although I have found no systemic issues with fairness or equity in the way U.S. forces have run their media embed program."
(Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman points out that Admiral Smith "was until recently the strategic-communications director for Gen. David Petraeus at U.S. Central Command.")
Rendon had been subjecting individual journalists' work to examination in order to determine whether their coverage could be said to be "positive," "negative," or "neutral." When the story broke, the military spun it as a routine profile that had no bearing on whether or not embeds were approved. In the original piece, Reed quoted Air Force Captain Elizabeth Mathias as saying, "We have not denied access to anyone because of what may or may not come out of their biography." But Stars and Stripes had a professional stake in the matter:
U.S. Army officials in Iraq engaged in a similar vetting practice two months ago, when they barred a Stars and Stripes reporter from embedding with a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division because the reporter "refused to highlight" good news that military commanders wanted to emphasize.
Writing at True/Slant, P.J. Tobia excerpted his own Rendon Group profile, and opined:
Most reporters in Afghanistan know about these reports. I obtained a copy of my Rendon report about three months ago from a friend in the military and I've posted excerpts below. I don't really think the reports are some kind of violation, in fact, I think the military is smart to look into the background's of people who will be writing about them. Rating the coverage that reporters give the military-"positive," "neutral," "negative"-seems a bit silly and slightly Orwellian, but if thousands of reporters were covering my organization, I would want a simple shorthand to indentify them as well.
I do think the reports are creepy though. These guys have read almost everything I've written in the last few years, even interviews I've given to local news blogs. Reading this report is like perusing the diary of your stalker. Rendon also classifies certain publication as "left leaning" which I find odd.
Summing up his "neutral to negative" take, Tobia said: "Most troubling by far is that when [Stars And Stripes] asked the military about Rendon, they denied the existence of these reports."
Military terminates Rendon contract [Stars and Stripes]
Journalists' recent work examined before embeds [Stars And Stripes]
The Pentagon's Journalist-Vetting Program [The Washington Independent]
US Military Investigates Afghan Desk [True/Slant]
I Want My Rendon Group Profile! [The Washington Independent]