Monday, June 8, 2009

PSYOP and PT Barnum

This week’s lead posting was supposed to be a thoughtful perspective about PSYOP Regimental Week last week at Fort Bragg. However, there is just too good of a target of opportunity to pass up.

Sunday’s (8 June 09) Washington Post featured an article entitled: “A High-Priced Media Campaign That Iraqis Aren't Buying” (see

The article leads off by describing Baghdad Now, a newspaper that according to the article “has no publicly known editor, no bylines and no ads”. The article continues by saying that the paper is free and distributed by soldiers.

Is this a giant waste of money or not? It should be obvious that Baghdad Now is not a ‘real’ paper because it doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t have any ads, but does that mean the entire effort is a waste of money?

At the risk of sounding like an attorney, it depends. On the one hand there would appear to be a real credibility gap, but on the other, even if only a limited numbers of Iraqi’s read the paper hasn’t it accomplished something? Actually I think the money and energy could be better spent in other ways.

There is a big difference between tactical PSYOP support to a particular operation or set of operations. For example, PSYOP in support of a cordon and search operation has a finite beginning and a clear end point. PSYOP support to induce an enemy force to surrender or to convince insurgents to leave the area also has concrete metes and bounds. These assignments are clearly the meat and potatoes of tactical PSYOP in general and US Army PSYOP in particular.

However, these missions are in stark contrast to the loftier, more strategic goals of supporting the USG’s goals of bolstering the Iraqi government and insuring a secure environment as US troops withdraw.

Publishing a newspaper even for an audience you know well is not easy. The financial woes of the US printed newspaper industry are not exclusively a US problem and attest to the difficulties facing this medium.

Newspapers must give their readers a reason to pick them up. Local papers in particular are succeeding by providing local news that the regional or national media just can’t provide. Local politics, local social events, local religious celebrations and news of one’s neighbors are the stuff of well read local papers. Local papers also prominently publish obituaries because they are important to the community. A newspaper that only published fluff and generalities would quickly find itself out of business.

Of course the Washington Post may not be presenting the full picture, after all their job is also to sell papers and stories about USG efforts that are going well or can’t be connected to the Abu Ghraib debacle won’t sell nearly as well as those that do. Having said, it seems to me that US influence efforts would be better spent in partnership efforts with existing credible media. The resulting product won’t be the everything is rosy approach of Baghdad Now, but the interaction with credible local journalists can ultimately develop into the relationships and journalistic philosophy necessary for an impartial reporting of the news or at least a less judgmental view that doesn’t tar all the actions of the Iraqi government or the US forces trying to support it.


Anonymous said...

Me thinks someone should start putting an Iraqi face to an Iraqi paper. Especially since we are supposed to be "pulling out of Iraq" soon (or so the new admin keeps stating). How tough would it be to find an editor? Maybe one of the Iraqi journalists that have been with the paper for awhile would be willing. They could also offer free advertising for a limited time. If some companies make a bit extra through that, they may be more willing to pay for the advertising (which is how papers make money) later on.

Just a couple thoughts.


Lawrence Dietz said...

Some great comments Tom, thanks. I especially like the idea of free advertising - promoting the entrepreneurs of Iraq makes a great deal of sense.

Anonymous said...

Good points Lawence. This reminds me of a workshop I took learning a program for actor centered modeling theory. One of the teachers was an anthropologist that worked for decades in the gov't anti-drug media campaign. He said that the data showed that drug use going up or down was based largely on the stories and narratives that drug takers tell and spread through their networks.
To be credible any anti-drug information campaign would have to follow this natural pattern and include the same themes of real world drug narratives. The official gov't position, however, is that nothing positive could ever be said about any drug, which was simply not credible to anyone; after all, people don't take drugs for no reason.
So they were stuck with politically implemented campaigns that did nothing but waist tax payer dollars. The instructor said we eventually quit in disgust.

In psyop we call this "psyop by good idea," rather than by real world information, which is what you are talking about. To be credible we have to admit that the U.S. has made many mistakes and continues to make mistakes, but that we are learning from those mistakes and need the collaboration of Iraqis to move forward. Otherwise, we will have psyop that is just as pointless and stupid as the "Just Say No" campaign.


Susan said...

Obviously the Iraqis know this is a US paper, so why not use that angle? Have reporters do articles about what the American soldiers are doing, maybe do interviews with soldiers about their experiences in Iraq, that sort of thing. If you're going to go with feel-good propaganda, at least be up front about it.

Your assessment of small local newspapers was spot-on, by the way. Our ad revenue, circulation, and website hits have all gone up during a time when large newspapers are tanking.