BOB GARFIELD: When details of the Lincoln Group's work first emerged, it prompted declarations by the White House and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the possibility of buying good press was a serious cause for concern.
Four months later, a Pentagon investigation found that while the Lincoln Group had paid to plant stories, it had not committed any legal or military violations.
Last month, the military again called for bids for a two-year, 20-million-dollar contract for help in its message management. The chosen company will, among other things, grade the media on how favorably they cover the U.S. in Iraq, and help strategize on ways to improve that coverage. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson is the director of the Combined Press Information Center for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. He says that despite the concerns about the Lincoln Group, propaganda is not what his shop is aiming for.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: Not in any way a part of a contract being considered. What had occurred before was part of an investigation that was done by a unit subordinate to the force here.
I engage with the Iraqi media every day. And we do it in the same way we do the western media. We do press conferences. We talk to them when they have queries. We call them on the phone when we see mistakes and we invite them in to talk to our people.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you think the central problem of media coverage is, and what do you think the military can do about it?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: Well, simply that we cannot compete against an enemy who has the tools to go out and indiscriminately kill people, which is going to make the news. I think part of the frustration right now, too, is trying to bring in a media that has been covering this for a long time, and the conditions for them have gotten extremely difficult. And their constrained in their reporting and they're constrained in their resources to be able to get with our troops on the ground.
So we're seeking ways to ensure that they are able to get with our troops as much as possible, because we know they're our greatest storytellers. But it's difficult.
BOB GARFIELD: Bidding has just concluded on a two-year 20-million-dollar contract for outside PR help that would assist the Coalition in meeting its message goals. Can you tell me what this contract will entail and who's been hired?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: Closing for the bid has passed, and the evaluation is ongoing. But the purpose of this is not abnormal, by any means. It's something that's done throughout government agencies, and a lot of it is very basic stuff. It's monitoring of media, and determining what's being said out there, and providing advice, when necessary.
It may be as simple as getting qualified people in to design a website for us and help manage it, a skill that we don't have in the military.
BOB GARFIELD: So let's say this outside PR firm comes in and monitors the media and says, this media organization is clobbering us and this one's been a little more receptive of our message. This one is completely off the reservation. Then what?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: Well, you know, that's not really what they're doing. And, actually, that's a lot of what I do in building the relationships with the media here. And these people who are hired on this contract certainly provide me some insights as to what's going on out there. But ultimately, it's down to me and people like me who are building the relationship and going out and talking to 'em about it.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to refer to a remark made by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld recently, I believe, to the American Legion. He observed that a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient got one-tenth the coverage of a soldier punished for misconduct in Iraq. Does the Pentagon not grasp the central fact that good news is, by definition, not much in the way of news? That no one reads the paper to learn about the train that didn't derail?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: Well, that's always a frustration, isn't it? We see people out here doing great things every day, and we want it to be a part of the news, and we want them to get recognition. And [it's] part of the great frustration among military leaders, to see those things go unnoticed when the bombing of the day does make the news.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it a frustration in dealing with your superiors, that their expectations for what constitutes fair-minded coverage doesn't jive with how real journalism is conducted?
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: It's certainly a part of what I do. It's an ongoing educational process where I try to explain why what's in the news is, and what makes a story, and where the conflict exists in any given story.
I will tell you that a large part of our problem is simply not being able to respond in as timely a manner because we want to get the facts. We want to make sure all the commanders know what's going up the chain and that it's been verified.
And there are people out there making tough decisions every day, life and death decisions. And because of that, they often think that they shouldn't be talking, that they're afraid to put out too much information. And so, our story doesn't get told.
BOB GARFIELD: All right well, Colonel Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BARRY JOHNSON: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD: Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson is the director of the Combined Press Information Center for the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. He spoke to us from Baghdad. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]