Open Letter to the Associated Press: Government Propagandists 1; AP 0

09/12/2007 01:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To: Matthew Lee, Anne Flaherty and AP Washington editors

CC: Americans and American media who rely on the AP

Bcc: Washington press corps reporters, if they exist, who have a shred of independence from the government left.

Mr. Lee and Ms. Flaherty, you should be ashamed. You know somewhere in your hearts that your stories about President Bush's upcoming speech have helped the government float a trial balloon it desperately needed to watch before the final text and talking points are approved on Thursday.

The initial AP report on the speech ran among other places on the Dallas Morning News Web site yesterday without a byline under the headline "Bush to announce Iraq troop reduction."

The lede was amazing in both its simplicity and its ability to mislead. It read:

"President Bush will tell the nation this week he plans to reduce the American troop presence in Iraq by about 30,000 by next summer, but will condition those and further cuts on continued progress, The Associated Press has learned."

That story and the follow-up with your bylines did nothing more than allow government speech writers and communications staff to test the waters further to see whether mainstream reporters for the national media would buy their frame -- that the president wants to "reduce" troop levels in Iraq -- when the evidence and the facts in the story show that nothing of the sort is under consideration.

Let's be honest. The AP knew when it took this information yesterday "on background" with no attribution and no direct quotes and reported it around 4 p.m., just in time for evening newscasts all over the country that it was being used. The reporters knew it, and the editors knew it.

The AP didn't break this story after tireless research and independent verification. The AP didn't uncover any new information on its own. The AP was fed -- with a wink and metaphoric handshake that this somehow was some sort of leak -- the way this administration has fed national reporters all of its propaganda since it began building its case for this disastrous war.

My journalism students at Columbia and NYU know the difference between a leak and a feed. They know the technical difference, and they know the ethical implications. (A leak is when someone gives you something they shouldn't release and risks consequences if they are discovered. A feed is when propagandists hand you something to print with the tacit approval of their bosses.)

The White House gave you the information with a specific purpose. It wanted to see if national media would buy the frame "Bush to announce troop cuts." And the national media did, as the Kansas City Star and others showed today by running the follow-up that bears the Lee and Flaherty byline.

The government that is running this war wanted to make sure that the story that comes from the president's speech on Thursday isn't framed or given the more precise and accurate headline "Bush to continue surge for at least another year." And the AP happily obliged.

In return for a feed, the AP gave the government a lede and frame its propagandists desperately need to sell a war Americans overwhelmingly want to end. The AP confirmed to the propagandists that their frame is plausible -- at least to the Associated Press.

And by virtue of the role the AP plays in American media, the frame and the word "reduce" were distributed to virtually every newspaper and most television stations in the country yesterday.

The truth is that this administration pitched a "surge" to Americans last spring with the same hubris and "thumb in the eye" lies it pitched the original war. Our government told us it wanted to increase troop levels in Iraq temporarily during the summer of 2007. It's propagandists fought desperately to keep anyone from using the word "escalation," claiming that was an unpatriotic frame that invoked images of Vietnam.

What you have learned -- let's be honest here; what this speech will say -- is that instead of a temporary, three-month escalation, our government plans to continue the surge for at least another year.

White House propagandists gave you information that shows the government plans to make the 30,000 troops called-up for the surge effectively permanent, and that it will not even consider reducing the number of troops to pre-surge levels until next summer.

And you reported they are planning a troop "reduction."

Instead of reporting what the government is doing now, you chose to report what its spin doctors are saying it may (or may not) do a year from now. What other word is there for your work than propaganda?

My students and most Americans can tell you missed the lede. The question is why.

For some reason you chose to parrot the line the government you are supposed to watch and when necessary call on the carpet fed to you. Instead of telling people what that government is doing now, you chose the propagandists' phony frame and effectively reported on a future you have no way of reading.

A beginning journalist knows better, and so should you.

The question now is will you and your editors find a reason to attack me or anyone else who calls you on this embarrassing dereliction of your duty as some anti-war or anti-Bush zealot -- or will you simply ask yourself if this critique of your reporting is fair? This column has been about your journalism, not your or my politics.

The reason this is dire -- and you know this -- is the AP has a special agenda-setting effect. With fewer and fewer independent reporters in Washington D.C., more and more local and regional outlets depend on the AP for news from our nation's capital.

Now, that isn't all that important, relatively, when the story is: Who is responsible for a standoff between the president and Congress over a farm bill; or when it is a "he said/ he said" attack ad during a political campaign.

But this story is about America's place in the world today and in the history books for generations. It's also about the thousand or more young Americans likely to die in this war built on lies if the surge continues -- as the government plans, as you know.

Your decision to show the government that at least the AP will buy its frame has historic and moral implications, which wartime propaganda often does. Whether you want to abdicate your responsibility as a free and independent press to sort through what you are spoon fed, does, too.


Troop Surge