This week "Stars & Stripes" ran a story about media ratings prepared by public relations firm The Rendon Group and used by the military to vet reporters embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. "Files prove Pentagon is profiling reporters"
My initial reaction to hearing about the story was 'what's the big deal'? You'd be hard pressed to find a public relations firm that hasn't profiled media for a client. And then recommended strategies for working with each reporter based on those profiles. It makes sense to understand as much as you can about a reporter before you meet, just as you would do your research before meeting with a prospective client or a job applicant or a new boss.
But the devil is in the details. Reading the story, I found two larger issues. One is the unfortunately perennial problem of people lying, apparently believing no one will ever find out. In this case, both the Pentagon and Rendon claimed such a profiling system did not exist when they knew it did. Here's one quote: “They are not doing that [rating reporters], that’s not been a practice for some time — actually since the creation of U.S. Forces–Afghanistan” in October 2008, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters Monday. And then, of course, numerous sources stepped up to prove the contrary.
The second, and potentially larger, problem is what the Pentagon is doing with the profiling system. They were reported to be choosing - based on the profile - whether to approve reporters for embedded assignments with the troops. This is bothersome because the implication is that only reporters who will report positively on U.S. military actions would be approved. Appalling. We all need - and should be able to get - the most accurate information possible.
In a story datelined tomorrow morning, we learn that The Rendon Group has lost the Pentagon contract. On the one hand, I applaud the Pentagon for acting quickly and decisively. On the other hand, I believe they could have avoided the entire situation if they'd acted appropriately and told the truth in the first place.
I hate it when the public relations industry gets an undeserved black eye. I hate it more that the black eye comes because people who should know better think they can get away with acting inappropriately and then compound the problem by lying. I love it that we live in a country where media can and do keep digging for the truth.