US officials cancel contract to profile reporters

(AP) – U.S. military authorities in Afghanistan have terminated a contract with a company that was producing profiles of reporters seeking to cover a war that’s becoming increasingly unpopular with the American public.

The media analysis work being done by The Rendon Group had become a “distraction to our main mission here,” Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, director of communications for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, said Monday in an e-mailed statement.

Smith and other U.S. military officials have denied that the Rendon profiles were used to rate the coverage of individual reporters as positive, negative or neutral and that those scores influenced decisions on whether a journalist would be embedded with a military unit.

The termination is effective Sept. 1, states an information paper on the $1.5 million contract prepared by Smith’s office. U.S. Forces Afghanistan “has never denied access to any reporter based upon their past stories,” the paper says.

Rendon handled a broad range of media services, including writing press releases and analyzing coverage of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said. The reporter profiles were background information on the journalist that would help commanders know more about reporters assigned to their units and what topics they’d likely ask about, they said.

Stars and Stripes, a newspaper funded partly by the Defense Department, said the profiles had been used as recently as last year to keep reporters whose prior coverage had been negative from traveling with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

With public doubts about the war in Afghanistan growing, the implication was that the military was trying to reverse the trend by giving plum embed spots to reporters who have written favorably about the war.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just over half the respondents said the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman confirmed the contract had been terminated, but referred additional questions to Smith and U.S. military officials in Afghanistan. “This was their decision,” he said.

He said he was unaware of any other Pentagon contracts that screens the work of reporters.

Rendon has said that a small part of its contract involved preparing profiles of reporters preparing to travel with U.S. troops. These reviews were done only upon request, according to Rendon.

In a statement posted on its Web site, Rendon said it provides analysis of news content focused on themes such as stability and security, counterinsurgency and operational results.

“The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters. The analysis is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist’s inquiries, and TRG does not make recommendations as to who the military should or should not interview,” it said.

Rendon came under heavy criticism for its public relations work for the U.S. government before and during the Iraq war. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and other critics claimed Rendon helped create a campaign aimed at convincing the public and Congress that Iraq was an imminent threat.

A 2007 investigation by the Defense Department inspector general found no evidence to support the allegations. But the classified review, made public in 2008, revealed how extensively the Pentagon has relied on Rendon for communications advice and training.

Jones, a member of the House Armed Services oversight and investigations subcommittee, said Monday that he plans to contact the inspector general’s office to determine if another review of Rendon is necessary.

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