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Press Junket to "Happy Iraq" - Journalism or Propaganda?

Reported by Marie Therese - July 6, 2005

John Kasich, subsituting for vacationing Bill O'Reilly last night, discussed the upcoming "Truth Tour," the second such outing being sponsored by the newly created Office of Media Outreach, a taxpayer-funded publicity arm of the Department of Defense. Kasich's conservative guest, Move America Forward co-founder, Melanie Morgan, made it sound as though the tour was a private venture, while her liberal counterpart, the ever-feisty Ellis Henican of Newsday argued that it is a propaganda trip.

Kasich opened the show by saying that the Truth Tour would be an effort to show "the other side of the war." He continued: "A group of conservative radio talk show hosts are heading to Baghdad for a week long 'Truth Tour,' hoping to report the progress there which they say is being largely ignored the by the mainstream media."

According to FOXNews.com, "The 'Truth Tour' has been pulled together by the conservative Web cast radio group Rightalk.com and Move America Forward, a non-profit conservative group backed by a Republican-linked public relations firm in California."

That PR firm is Russo Marsh & Rogers, Inc. of Sacramento, which specializes in political campaigns. As their website states:

"When it comes to winning elections, few firms can match the success of Russo Marsh + Rogers, Inc.

"The experience of RM+R’s staff is one of the greatest advantages you get when you recruit the Russo Marsh + Rogers team of political professionals and campaign experts.

"The principals and associates at RM+R have been involved in more than 350 campaigns at the local, state, federal and international levels.

"In addition to our experience in almost every state in the nation and in countries such as Nicaragua and the Ukraine, the expertise of RM+R’s staff extends to every aspect of campaign strategy and design.

******

"RM+R understands the commitment it takes to run for office. And whether our client is political or corporate, we always give 110%.

"RM+R provides its clients (ranging from County Supervisor to President of the United States) a solid strategic plan combining direct mail, fundraising, research, broadcast advertising, audience targeting, etc.

"At RM+R we know that each campaign is unique and we are serious about winning. There are no simplistic formulas; creativity is essential.

"With our strategy and skill at implementing the right tactics, RM+R is a proven organization with a solid track record of winning races."

[Note: Click here for a list of the campaigns they have worked on, a list which includes George Pataki, the California Republican Party, George Deukmejian and George Nethercutt (Washington State). They seem to have a penchant for candidates with the first name "George." Sal Russo, one of the founders of RM+R also sits on the Board of Directors of Move America Forward. Other Board members include Howard Kaloogian, Melanie Morgan, Buzz Patterson, Jed Babbin and Siobhan Guiney. Babbin, you might recall, was Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under Bush I. He has been a frequent guest on FOX News hyping his book "Inside the Asylum: Why the United Stations and Old Europe are worse Than You Think." He also writes for The American Spectator and National Review.]

The purpose of the Truth Tour, according to Move America Forward's website, is "to report the good news on Operation Iraqi Freedom you're not hearing from the old line news media....The mission of the team MAF is leading to Baghdad: to get the news straight from our troops serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the positive developments and successes they are achieving."

Former California State Assemblyman Congressman Howard Kaloogian is the only non-radio personality making the trek to the sheltered oasis of the Green Zone in Baghdad. According to Media Matters:


"Kaloogian credits himself with launching the 'Recall Gray Davis Committee,' 'an effort which ousted Democrat Governor Gray Davis from office and resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's office.' He also led the 'Defend Reagan Committee,' a campaign urging CBS, Showtime, and their parent company, Viacom, to refuse to air a miniseries, titled The Reagans, about the late former President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. Kaloogian attributes CBS's decision not to air The Reagans (which was broadcast on Showtime instead) to the complaints of Reagan supporters."

Joining him on the trip will be Melanie Morgan (KSFO, San Francisco), Mark Williams (KFBK, Sacramento), Lt. Col. (USAF-Ret.) Buzz Patterson, Martha Zoller (WDUN, Gainesville/Atlanta), Michael Graham (WMAL, Washington, D.C.), two reporters from David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine and Center for the Study of Popular Culture.

Billboard Radio Monitor reported on July 5th:

"The Department of Defense has stepped up the number of sponsored media tours it is bringing into Iraq and Central Asia. The latest trip kicks off this Friday (July 8) and is sponsored, in part, by DoD's office of Central Command, which is based in Tampa, Fla., and is responsible for all military operations in the area that includes Iraq and other parts of Central Asia."

The tour kicks off on Friday July 8th with a big "Thank You BBQ" at CENTCOM HQ in Tampa, Florida. FOX News host Sean Hannity's Radio Show, among others, will be carrying the "live from" broadcasts.

DoD's Office of Media Outreach already sponsored a similar junket in April, also reported by Billboard Radio Monitor:

"Seven talk show hosts and one classic-rock radio personality are in Iraq, courtesy of the Department of Defense, as part of a new initiative by the DoD's Office of Media Outreach. In some cases, the hosts are broadcasting live back to the U.S. or blogging or taping for later broadcast. Virtually all expenses are being picked up by the U.S. government, with the exception of broadcasters providing their own means of broadcasting or delivering their content."

"Commercial hosts on this first trip are: Clear Channel talk WLW Cincinnati’s Mike McConnell, Jerry Agar of Entercom’s KMBZ Kansas City, Paul Brandus of Bonneville’s all-news WTOP Washington, D.C., Talk Radio Network’s syndicated host Rusty Humphries, Cumulus Media’s Steve Gill and Scottie Semler of WWTN-FM (SuperTalk 99.7) Nashville, and Ellen Ratner, Washington bureau chief of the Talk Radio News Service."

"Renda Broadcasting’s David Kelso, the afternoon driver at classic rock KRXO Oklahoma City, is also part of the entourage. A notice on the station website touts Kelso’s reports as coming 'live from Iraq on KRXO.' He also has a blog available on the station site."

"Lynette Ebberts, director of the DoD's Media Outreach office tells Billboard Radio Monitor the hosts left on Monday, April 18 and are due back April 26. 'This is the first time we've done a trip like this,' Ebberts told Monitor, 'and we've just had a lot of interest and calls [from radio hosts] who said they wanted to go.' She put the number of other hosts who have expressed interest on a future trip at about 15."

[Note: Air America's liberal talk show host Al Franken has been to Iraq twice to entertain the troops as part of five USO tours he has made. Franken went to Iraq to make the guys laugh and forget the war and has reported his experiences many times on The Al Franken Show. At the end of the Factor interview, Morgan made the statement that her group had invited Air America but they declined the invitation.]

Due to the abysmal security situation in Iraq, these radio personalities will be limited to broadcasting from the Green Zone in Baghdad. In addition to the two trips already mentioned, on May 5th the Pentagon hosted a Country Music Stars Concert, described as follows on the DoD website:

"Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld will host the first 'America Supports You' Salute To Our Military Men and Women concert featuring singers Keni Thomas, Craig Morgan and Rockie at the Pentagon Courtyard, Thursday, May 5, from 12:15 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. EDT.

"During the concert, Lowe's will officially join the 'America Supports You' team and will unveil NASCAR cars No. 48 and No. 5 bearing the 'America Supports You' decal on the deck-lid, and 'Dare to Repair' authors Stephanie Glakas-Tenet and Julie Sussman will be available for a book signing.

It seems that Donald Rumsfeld has decided that my tax dollars - and yours - should be spent - not on more armor for Humvees or better health coverage for our wounded soldiers - but on cross-promotional concerts and PR junkets for conservative radio talk show hosts.

Throughout the Factor interview last night, Ellis Henican gave his all against the conservative duo he was up against. However, I felt that he did not go into the interview fully apprised of the details about the sponsorship of the tour or the Republican connections to Move America Forward. He did a good job of arguing that the Truth Tour is nothing more than propaganda, but had he been able to quote some of the facts listed above, it would have been much harder for Ms. Morgan to deny the obvious.

Melanie Morgan was all huffy-puffy self-righteousness, claiming that the tour was the result of calls received she received from servicemen claiming that the media wasn't covering the good things that were happening in Iraq.

MORGAN: "[I've heard from] American soldiers and sailors and airmen who are saying that there is a complete disconnect between what is going on on the ground in Iraq and over the skies and what they are seeing reported in American media."

Ellis Henican responded that "There are very few rules in the journalism business. One of them is that you don't take money from the people you are writing and talking about because it calls your entire fairness and objectivity into question. Newsday would not allow me to accept expensive gifts or junkets or money from the people that I'm covering. I know that FOX wouldn't want you doin' that and so the talk show hosts of America, who ought to be maintaining decent standards, holding themselves up as the arbiters of fairness and truth, should not be taking trips paid for by the very people that they are writing about and interest groups that have a strong position in that group. It's not journalism. It's propaganda."

Kasich tried to argue that this was alright because during the invasion of Iraq embedded reporters' expenses were covered by the government. Henican shot back that all expenses for the reporters were paid by their employers, not by the federal government.

KASICH: ".... Look. If you're a journalist now and you're in a hotel and you want to go out and report on something, you better believe the military is going to provide security for you.

HENICAN (after several abortive attempts to speak): "Newsday - we bring our own security. The smoke is getting in their eyes at the BBQ, I'm afraid."

KASICH (to Morgan): "... Are you being bought off on this?...."

MORGAN: You know. This is so typical of what the left does. they just start lying about us.

HENICAN: Oop!!

MORGAN (angry): Our trips are being paid for by ourselves and our radio stations and the United States government is not paying one dime to take care of us other than providing us with a smelly cot to sleep on and a military transport into Iraq and for you to suggest otherwise is insulting to me and it's insulting to the .... American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for whom I work. I am paying $3500 of my own money to get over to Iraq. Some of our other hosts are paying up to $15,000 of their own money and I really resent that implication that we are being bought off by the US government.

KASICH: Well, now. OK.

MORGAN: Yes, we're throwing ...

KASICH: Hold on, Melanie. I got you.

MORGAN: Wait a minute.

KASICH: I got you.

MORGAN: We're throwing a BBQ but we're doing that to thank CENTCOM troop members.

Later, Kasich noted that "we have not really heard a lot of the good things" that have happened in Iraq - schools, water systems, electric systems and the like. "There is good news ..."

Henican shot back with the comment that Kasich wasn't reading "carefully enough."

HENICAN: ... all of our papers and your network and my network have absolutely done plenty of it, but you know what? The answer isn't to have the government of the United States run these propaganda tours of the war zone. The answer is for real reporters and real radio broadcasters to go over and find out ..."

KASICH: What is wrong with a group of talk show hosts going to Iraq and talking to the soldiers and talking to the people in charge and trying to get a point of view over?

[Note: With these words Kasich actually admitted that this is a trip being made by people with a "point of view" they want to get across. He makes Henican's point for him - that this IS a propaganda tour and the radio hosts have an agenda they want to convey to their listeners.]

HENICAN: Nothing wrong with it so long as they understand what they're getting, which is a sanitized guided tour by the very people that they are supposedly reporting about. That's not journalism!

KASICH: Let me ask you this question, Melanie. Say you go over there and you see some things that you didn't expect to see or, you know, you see some things over there that you think are negative in terms of what's happening, how ya' gonna handle that?

MORGAN: I have absolutely no problem in reporting whatever I see is going on. I am a journalist of 30 years experience and I've won a hell of a lot of awards for the coverage that I've done from the Middle East, from Beirut. I was counting up dead Chinese students in Beijing during the student uprising in Tienneman Square. Do you think I'm going to get up and lie and ruin my credibility like some people at Newsweek ...

HENICAN: Well, here ...

MORGAN: ... or, say, Dan Rather ...

CROSSTALK

KASICH (loudly, upset): Wait, wait, wait now. Just hold it. Let her finish!! She deserves that!!! (to Morgan) Go ahead.

HENICAN: Well, she's finished.

KASICH (upset): Alright. So what do you want to say? Do you want to say it's still propaganda ...

HENICAN (louder): No!

KASICH: ... (indecipherable) a woman ...

HENICAN (louder): No. No. I think it's wonderful. I welcome it. I think it's terrific.

KASICH: Right.

HENICAN: But just understand what it is you're buying when you go on these organized trip like this.

KASICH: You know, Ellis.

MORGAN: It is not an ...

KASICH: When you talk - First of all, they - I don't think they've been bought. Let me tell - you know, my view on the war ...

HENICAN: Well then we've heard their conclusions before they've even left, John!

MORGAN: You - we haven't said a word yet! We haven't uttered one single word ...

KASICH; What are you talkin' about? She hasn't said a word!

HENICAN: We just heard how negative and unfair its all been and you haven't even gone yet!

END CROSSTALK

KASICH: Well, wait a minute Ellis. They have a perception - hold on! They have a perception that, frankly, people aren't hearin' the whole story ...

HENICAN: Fair enough!

KASICH: ... they're not hearin' the 360 ....

HENICAN: Fair enough!

KASICH: ... and I think it's fair to say that in the major media today - I think that you'd agree with this - there isn't enough balance, correct?

HENICAN: We should have as much reporting as possible. Let a thousand flowers bloom, like we always say.

KASICH: Right.

MORGAN: Alright. Ellis ...

HENICAN: Great! Bring it on!

KASICH: Go ahead, Melanie.

MORGAN: Ellis, let me say we have one of our members of our Board of Directors of MoveAmericaForward.com and .org - that's where we are on the web - is a Gunnery Sergeant and he's the one who provided the inspiration for this. You know why? Because he wrote us and told us that he is in northern Iraq and he was accompanied - he was paired up with two Washington Post reporters. There was no bang-bang and boom-boom going on there - the situation was stabilized and, therefore, the Washington post reporters - the pair of them -were not interested in reporting a darn thing about the fact ...

KASICH: You know. You know, Ellis ...

MORGAN: ... that there were schools being built and other improvements soldiers were making in that region.

[Note: It has been reported repeatedly in every media outlet that I read that NORTHERN Iraq, which is Kurdish-run, is not experiencing the same turmoil that central Iraq is.]

KASICH: Let me just thank you, Mel. I think it's a good point. But, Ellis, here's the thing.

HENICAN: OK.

KASICH: I really don't know what's going on on the ground. I talked to lots of people and I can't figure it out but she makes a good point. If it's good news, we don't report it.

HENICAN: Listen. That's fair enough. But, you know what, Melanie's here representing a radio station and an interest group in this thing. Let's remember she's here for both of them, not just one of them.

CROSSTALK [Everyone was talking at once at this point, so it was really difficult on first hearing to filter out what anyone was saying.]

KASICH: Well, I'm gonna wait for the left to go over and give their report. (points to Henican) I want you to go.

HENICAN: I'm not goin' for some group! I'm goin' for my newspaper - my newspaper!!!

MORGAN: We invited them. They wouldn't come. Air America wouldn't come.

KASICH: Invite - invite Ellis and let him come over with you!

HENICAN: I've been [indecipherable].

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