The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, October 17, 2003

The good news letters: any danger of some actual journalism at some point?

A bad sign that newsrooms have passed on to the op-ed boys the story (latest here on October 14) of the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne and the letter-writing campaign of their commander, Lt-Col Dominic Caraccilo - and well before some basic factual details have been sorted out.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (October 16) has some biographical stuff on Caraccilo - he's a native of Seneca Falls, it seems [1] - and points out that there was a piece on the 173rd Airborne (of which the 503rd is part) in the Philadelphia Inquirer of October 4 2003, under the head Success story in Iraq [2] - in which letter-writing played no part.

There have been a few more stories: in papers that published the Gannett 11 like the Snohomish Herald: which (October 15) repeats that, in addition to the Shelton letter it published, it received two more identical letters with different signatures. But it does not address the question (I raised in my earlier piece) of one smallish-town rag getting three letters from a single battalion.

But, it seems, the fact that Caraccilo has put up his hand to instigating the letter-writing business has taken the wind of out the story, looked on as news.

No one seems to be considering, for example, following up to which papers the rest of the 500 letters still unaccounted for were sent, and what happened to them.

Nor is anyone apparently the least bit curious to know whether Caraccilo was unique in his brainwave - and use Nexis to check exactly what other correspondence from US military posted to Iraq has been published by American newspapers in the last few months.

Or investigate the detailed handling of the letters under the Hometown News Release Program - the MO of which does not coincide with one or two of the stories told about their sons' letters by the doting parents of ostensible signatories.

Or look at what influence the CENTCOM public affairs operation (at various levels) might have had in encouraging (whether wittingly or not) Col Caraccilo to do what he says he did.

As I say, as news, the story is moribund, if not actually dead.

As op-ed, not so much. There's been a lurch to the other extreme: in Maureen Dowd's New York Times piece (October 16) (slashed by Andrew Sullivan), suggests that it was all a White House plot:
The president has tried to shake off the curse with a P.R. push to circumvent the national media and get smaller news outlets to do sunny stories about Iraq.

The P.R. campaign shamelessly included bogus cheerful form letters sent to newspapers, supposedly written by soldiers in Iraq...

With holes left by the journalistic PBI in the basic story that one could drive a tank through, Dowd decides, on the basis of no evidence that I've seen, that George did it. Or someone pretty close.

Also thoroughly nauseating (as well as historically flat wrong) is the assumption implicit in such pieces that, in wishing to fold, spindle and mutilate the truth in any way that serves his position, Bush is doing anything different from rulers of every type in every location in every era. It's a pathetic plea of feebleness and ignorance. If the price of demonising Bush is canonising the rest, I'll pass. A piece by one James Pinkerton invokes George Orwell's 1984:
Somewhere, Orwell's ghost is smiling grimly. In his novel "1984," the British writer imagined a Ministry of Truth that would be responsible for manufacturing news of victories and triumphs. Now, it's no longer fiction; it's your tax dollars at work.
Who'da thunk it!

My hypothesis is that CENTCOM propagandists have been full of 'bright ideas' like Caraccilo's letters for getting at the ordinary Joe via small-town media - and bypassing the Filter [3]. (The reaction of the Filter seems to be a fit of the vapours at the very idea.) Just how prepared the average grunt is to pitch in is evident from Caraccilo's 500 out of 800 hit rate - if that's true, of course. (And, like I said, no one's tracked the 500, that I can see.) And local papers publishing missives from home town heroes? The words pushing, open and door spring to mind.

No cattle-prods or brown envelopes required: all parties are likely to be willing.

So, the surprising thing - the man bites dog, tabloid values thing - is that the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne is the only unit fingered! [4]

What happened in previous wars, I wonder? Has anyone analysed letters to newspapers by US servicemen in and after World War 2, for instance? Or Korea, or Vietnam? I'd be surprised if there wasn't some kind of how-to manual available to US forces spinners on how best to organise just such a campaign.

Yet, to credit what they say, the DOD are as sniffy as Dowd about the whole thing. And, we're led to believe, it's stopped.

Are there, as I write, journos monitoring the situation, checking servicemen's letters to the editor for signs plagiarism? I doubt it.

I'd like to think it might be a feint by DOD spinners - a twofer, in which they are seen to crack down on sharp practice, and get journos (attention span of a goldfish) to tick the box and move on. Whereupon the flood of phoney letters continues.

Do we know that there was a flood of phoney letters? No. Do we know (the 503rd excepted) that there wasn't? Answers on a postcard...

  1. Home of the famous Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 - on which there seem to be nothing particularly meaty online.

  2. Which, I suspect, is this report in another Knight Ridder rag.

  3. Michael Kingsley in Slate yesterday.

  4. And what about the 1st Battalion? Didn't they do any letters? Is there some sort of pissing contest going on between the two units?


After writing this, I see a piece by Justin Raimondo [1] which (via the ever-useful crutch that is Mr Google) shows Caraccilo as something of a military rentaquote - the media's go-to guy for a bit of flash, an embed-lover extraordinaire.

Doesn't get us a whole lot further forward, I suspect - DOD operators might well use the info to spin that Caraccilo is a saddo with a John Wayne complex: demonstrably not a team player, far less a tool in any USG global media manipulation strategy.

That's the problem with slumming with Mr Google - you get a whole lot of speculation, but rarely anything definitive. (And that's speaking as a Google-whore: hate 'em, loathe 'em or despise 'em, at some stage you need a real, live journo for the slimmest chance of getting to the bottom of things.)

Also, on USG's media manipulation campaign in general, a piece in US News linking to what purports to be
the text of a briefing by analyst Sam Gardiner that suggests the White House and Pentagon made up or distorted over 50 war stories.

Is it kosher, or more manipulation? Hopefully, I'll have a chance to read it shortly...

  1. Britons of a certain age will think What's the recipe today, Jim?

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