Monday, December 12, 2005

Former Knight-Ridder Journalist on U.S. Newspaper Payola Scandal

Knight-Ridder's former Baghdad bureau chief says she saw lots of evidence during her time there that the U.S. was getting positive coverage in the Iraqi press in exchange for various types of favors.

Recent revelations that the Pentagon has paid hundreds of Iraqi journalists for positive stories in the war-torn country are no surprise to former Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau chief Hannah Allam. During her two years in the capital city, Allam says signs of a "cozy" relationship between U.S. officials and the local press were everywhere.

In addition, Allam, who left Baghdad in September to open a Cairo bureau for Knight Ridder, noted the existence during her stint of a tabloid-style newspaper apparently published by U.S. officials that contained previously-published stories--including some of her own--but with negative news removed.

"They were removing anything critical and slapping the stories together, printing them and distributing them all over Baghdad," she said. "It was obviously published by the U.S. I wonder if it was one of the early vehicles for these (planted) positive stories." She could not recall the name of the tabloid, noting it had not appeared for several months.

Allam's observations are in response to recent revelations of an organized propaganda program by the Pentagon, in which the Washington-based Lincoln Group paid Iraqi news outlets to run positive stories. While she offers no first-hand accounts of that specific arrangement, Allam said U.S. officials were often seeking to influence Iraqi journalists in obvious ways.

"I used to see groups of Iraqi journalists going off on (social) trips" with the military, said Allam, who ran the Baghdad bureau from 2003 to 2005. "I would ask one of them what the were doing and they would say, 'I'm going off on a soccer trip with the military.' They were very organized trips," she aid, adding that U.S. journalists were never included. "They seemed to be really cozy trips."

She also remembered the U.S. embassy last August giving 30 lap top computers to Iraqi journalists, including a "fixer" often used by Knight Ridder. "That raised some eyebrows," she said. "I don't know what they expect in return."

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