August 31, 2009 -- The U.S. military command in Afghanistan plans to terminate its $1.5 million contract with a public relations firm for services that include assessing journalists' work before embedding them with troops, a Pentagon spokesman said Sunday.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top military spokesman in Afghanistan, said he decided to end the contract because it was becoming a distraction, Stars and Stripes reported on its website. Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, confirmed Smith's decision and referred questions to commanders in Kabul.
The Rendon Group, a Washington-based public relations firm, provides the military with dossiers on reporters including a section on the "perspective, style and tone" of their work, according to a sample profile.
The attempt to determine a reporter's accuracy erases "the line between government review of the press and censorship," says Ronald Collins of the First Amendment Center, which studies media issues.
"It taxes the mind of reasonable people to think that this information was being collected for any purpose other than to weed out journalists whose accounts differ from the government's," he said.
But Rendon denied it was trying to shape the news.
In a statement on its website, Rendon said it was characterizing stories, not reporters. For example, a reporter's story may have been characterized as negative if the event was negative, such as a suicide bombing or kidnapping, it said. The information it provided was not intended to be used for accepting or rejecting a journalist's requests, it said.
The Army had rejected two out of 143 reporters who requested embed assignments when the 101st Airborne Division oversaw the Rendon contract, according to Maj. Patrick Seiber of the 101st. Both were rejected for inaccuracy and release of classified information, Seiber said.
Rendon's reports were one of many factors in the decision, he said. And in both cases the news organizations were allowed to embed other journalists.
The 101st left Afghanistan in April and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the top command for U.S. troops, assumed the contract. Since then no journalist has been denied an embedding assignment in Afghanistan based on their previous coverage under the new command, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, a military spokeswoman in Kabul, said Sunday.
The information collected by Rendon was not used to rate reporters, according to Air Force Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman. Instead, it serves as background material to help military leaders prepare for interviews.
"The Rendon contract provides several analytic reports, to include characterization of specific topical stories/events as positive, negative or neutral, as well as whether media reporting is an accurate portrayal of the facts as we know them," Mathias said in an e-mail.