WASHINGTON—The White House and a senior Republican lawmaker expressed concern Thursday over reports that the U.S. military has been paying Iraqi news media to produce positive stories about the U.S. military's efforts to bring stability to Iraq.
The U.S. military command in Baghdad, meanwhile, defended the practice, saying that it was needed to counter falsehoods and propaganda from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Knight Ridder reported on Thursday that U.S. Army officers have been paying up to $200 per month to Iraqi newspaper, radio and television journalists to produce stories that reflected well on the U.S. military and the conduct of the war.
Former and current U.S. military and defense officials told Knight Ridder they feared that the effort ran counter to the U.S. goal of building a democracy in Iraq, including a free press, and that it risked undermining the credibility of the U.S. military and American government.
The Knight Ridder report came a day after the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. military has been secretly paying to have pro-U.S. stories written by U.S. military information specialists published in Iraqi newspapers.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the Bush administration was "very concerned" about the reports of paid-for news.
"We asked the Department of Defense to look into this," said McClellan. "And we're seeking more information. I know that the Pentagon is seeking more information, as well. The United States is a leader when it comes to promoting and advocating a free and independent media around the world, and we will continue to do so."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that while he could not verify the reports, he was "concerned about any actions that may undermine the credibility of the United States as we help the Iraqi people stand up a democracy.
"A free and independent press is critical to the functioning of a democracy, and I am concerned about any actions which may erode the independence of the Iraqi media," Warner added.
He said he had asked the Pentagon to brief his committee on the issue Friday.
Asked whether paying for positive stories could undermine the credibility of the U.S. military and the Iraqi media, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for the U.S. command in Baghdad, replied that "half the battlefield is the battlefield of the media."
He said that it was vital to counter propaganda put out by al-Zarqawi, who has used the Internet extensively to disseminate statements and gruesome videos of hostage executions.
"What Zarqawi is doing continuously is lying to the Iraqi people, lying to the international community," said Lynch. "Conducting these kidnappings, these beheadings, these explosions so that he gets international coverage to look like he has more capability than he truly has. He is lying to the Iraqi people."
He added: "We don't lie. We don't need to lie. We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public. But everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction."