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Pentagon Denies it Rates Reporters in Afghanistan

The Pentagon and the U.S. headquarters in Afghanistan are denying that they have ranked reporters as positive, negative or neutral, or used such analyses to determine which journalists would have access to U.S. troops and commanders. The denials follow stories in a Pentagon-subsidized publication that charge officials are using analyses provided by a private company to figure out how to influence coverage.

The international newspaper for U.S. troops, Stars and Stripes, reported on Monday that the U.S. command in Afghanistan was using media analysis provided by a Washington-based public relations firm to screen reporters requesting to travel with American forces. The Pentagon denied the report.

Then on Thursday, the newspaper, which is guaranteed editorial independence by U.S. law, printed another story, quoting from analyses that describe coverage as "positive," "negative" or "neutral." It also published a chart it says came from one of the analyses, which rates 16 months of one unnamed reporter's coverage as 83 percent neutral and 16 percent negative. The story also quotes a recommendation about how to "neutralize" any possible "negative" coverage by a reporter by providing him with quotes from military officials.

Speaking from Kabul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. command in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Commander Christine Seidenstricker, told VOA the analysis provides biographical information and copies of reporters' stories, but is not used in making decisions about access to newsmakers.

"The way they are never used is to make decisions on whether or not to allow a reporter to embed [with U.S. forces], or whether or not to grant an interview," said Christine Seidenstricker. "We do not, have not and are not going to make decisions on access based on positive or negative coverage."

Seidenstricker says the information gathered by the contractor is used for what she called "very legitimate and very innocuous purposes" to help officials prepare for interviews and see how their policies, actions and statements are perceived.

But the command in Kabul distributed samples of the analyses of several reporters, which include a section called "Perspective, Style and Tone." Various reporters' coverage is described as "newsworthy," "straightforward," "nuanced" and "unbiased." The reporters' names have been deleted. One analysis says the reporter often includes statements from U.S. officials, but also covers "multiple viewpoints and perspectives."

The command did not provide any particularly negative analyses of reporters. But it did distribute a chart from this past Monday showing "positive," "negative" or "neutral" ratings for a variety of stories from many news organizations. The chart includes one VOA story about three NATO troops who were killed in Afghanistan, and rates the story as negative.

In a statement on its website, the company that prepared the material, The Rendon Group, said its ratings do not refer to reporters, but rather to "themes and topics" as they relate to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. For example, it says coverage of suicide bombings would be rated negative, while reports that reflect improved stability would get a positive mark.

One of the senior Pentagon spokesmen, Bryan Whitman, says analyses of reporters' work based on what might be "positive" or "negative" for the military "serves no purpose," and says it is not done on a department-wide basis.

"I've told you what I think is the only metric [measurement] that I use, that I think is of any value, that we convey to our principals [senior officials], is whether or not a story is accurate or inaccurate," he said.

Still, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists condemned the Afghanistan headquarters' media analyses. Its General Secretary is Aidan White.

"There's a real possibility of discrimination against journalists who are not willing to sign up to a solely positive view of how the American military is performing in Afghanistan," said Aidan White. "And that is really a threat to press freedom."

White says while claiming to fight for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, the U.S. military appears to prefer "propaganda" to "honest reporting." But he acknowledged there is no information indicating the military ever used the analyses to deny any reporter access to U.S. military units or commanders.