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Changing the station: media and propaganda in Iraq

A couple of years ago, I was taking a long ride in a taxi cab in Jordan and noticed the driver would switch stations on the radio once the announcer came on with a newscast. Precisely five minutes later, he’d switch back to the original station. I asked him what he was doing.

He explained that he was listening to Radio Sawa, the US sponsored radio station that broadcasts in several Middle Eastern nations, offering “accurate, timely and relevant news about the Middle East, the world and the United States.” (The quote is from Sawa’s English-language website.) He told me: “The music is really good, but the news is bullshit. So I switch it off when the news comes on, then switch back when the music returns.”

I thought about this today as I read Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi’s story in the LA Times about Pentagon contractors writing stories for Iraqi newspapers. Mazzetti and Dargahi talked to a number of military officials who were deeply concerned that “planting” stories in Iraqi newspapers and taking steps to obscure their connections to US military interests subverted the idea of an independent press and threatened the US’s larger “democratic experiment.” The White House and senior pentagon officials claim to be unaware of the initiative.

While there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a sleazy technique that will weaken Iraq’s already fragile press, I find myself wondering whether techniques like this can possibly be effective. Radio Sawa doesn’t clearly advertise itself as an American propoganda tool, but average folks on the street in Amman or Cairo know that the station’s reporting has a distinctive bias. When Iraqis encounter a blatantly pro-US story in a newspaper that’s otherwise critical of the occupation, are they likely to conclude that perhaps he was wrong and the Americans really are fighting the good fight? Or that the Americans have subverted his daily newspaper, leading him to look for news from other sources?

Perhaps the US has just granted a great favor to Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and other arabic media outlets in Iraq, helping convince Iraqis that to get news, not propaganda, they need to look beyond both the US media and nascent local media outlets.