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Aug. 28 2009 - 8:12 am | 172 views | 7 recommendations | 14 comments

US Military Investigates Afghan Desk

This article from Stars and Stripes has a lot of journalists talking. It is about The Rendon Group, a company that puts together background briefs on reporters who apply for embeds with the US military in Afghanistan.

Most reporters in Afghanistan know about these reports. I obtained a copy of my Rendon report about three months ago from a friend in the military and I’ve posted excerpts below. I don’t really think the reports are some kind of violation, in fact, I think the military is smart to look into the background’s of people who will be writing about them. Rating the coverage that reporters give the military–”positive,” “neutral,”  “negative”–seems a bit silly and slightly Orwellian, but if thousands of reporters were covering my organization, I would want a simple shorthand to indentify them as well.

I do think the reports are creepy though. These guys have read almost everything I’ve written in the last few years, even interviews I’ve given to local news blogs. Reading this report is like perusing the diary of your stalker.  Rendon also classifies certain publication as “left leaning” which I find odd.

Most troubling by far is that when S&S asked the military about Rendon, they denied the existence of these reports. I’m holding one of these reports in my hand right now, trust me, it exists.  I’ve also met people who work for The Rendon Group in Kabul. In conversations, they deny that there is any nefarious objective to what they do. “We just help the military figure out what embed is right for a particular reporter,” one Rendon employee told me over drinks. “If a reporter is classified as “negative” they are less likely to go where the action is and more likely to be covering a platoon that guards sandbags in Herat.”

I’ve quoted the best parts of my Rendon report below for your reading pleasure. This was my second report, generated after my second embed (in Wardak) and before my third (in Kandahar.) I bolded some of the good parts and put links to the stories they reference.

Memorandum

FROM: The Rendon Group

Date: 5 May 2009

RE: UPDATE P.J. Tobia Journalist Profile

The purpose of this memo is to provide an updated assessment of P.J. Tobia, and give a profile of his work, both through a summary of content and analysis of style, in order to gauge the expected sentiment of his work while on an embed mission in Afghanistan…

UPDATE to analysis below:

Tobia’s work resulting from his most recent embed was an in-depth article for The Philadelphia Inquirer on joint US, French and ANA operations in Wardak. The article followed Lt Eric Schwirian and his efforts to train ANA soldiers who, if properly strengthened, are the coalition’s ticket out of Afghanistan. His article for Philadelphia Inquirer was more straightforward than his previous work.

Tobia was more sympathetic and less critical of the US Military in his most recent report as evidenced by his quote selection: “We’re here to keep the Afghan people safe.”

Tobia continues to humanize US soldiers by quoting mainly US Military personnel and detailing the soldiers’ backgrounds, homes and reaction to fighting in Afghanistan.

His most recent article is neutral-to-positive while his previous work has been neutral or neutral-to-negative.

In an interview, he decried the acid attacks and human rights violations toward Afghan women in particular…

Background

[Tobia's] articles on Afghanistan focused on multiple topics that included, narcotics use, detainee abuse, the ‘hearts and minds’ mission, the development of the ANSF as well as the overall cost of the US mission in Afghanistan. He produced two articles that were originally published in The Washington Post and Nashville Scene but were later picked up by New York’s left leaning Village Voice and Florida’s New Times.

…It should be noted that his [Village Voice] article was titles “Afghaniscrewed: How I Spent My Fall Vacation.”

Perspective, Style and Tone

Tobia tends to write lengthy feature articles that are highly narrative. His articles are often written in first person and may be considered commentaries rather than hard news pieces. His articles are thought provoking as he often asks questions rather than making conclusions.

He writes with an outside observer’s perspective, but his articles show he can identify and empathize with US troops.

Expectations for Embed

Based on his previous embed and past reporting, it is unlikely that he will miss an opportunity to report on US military missteps. However, if following previous trends, he will remain sympathetic to US troops and may acknowledge a learning curve in Afghanistan.

Considering his previous embed, it is likely that he will produce articles that may be picked up by a number of publications.

In light of his previous style and previous coverage, it is likely that he will write long feature articles that address several current Afghan issues in relation to troops he has contact with.


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  1. collapse expand

    PJ, great get of your own report. On my last embed(October 2008) I had been told of the Rendon reports by a official who had read mine, and I guess I got an okay grade, though the photog and I thought for awhile we’d been sent to watch the sandbags! In Iraq, Rendon provided all sorts of media analysis for the DoD and State, including weekly updates of how many mentions the U.S militar spokespeople were getting verus the U.S. ambassador versus the Embassy spokesperson etc.

    I think it’s it odd in that it’s a taxpayer funded contract–you’d think that the military press operations themselves could manage a few google searches and some lexis/nexis and save some cash.

  2. collapse expand

    Fascinating piece. I was unaware that the military was outsourcing background checks on embedded reporters – though it does make sense. Can’t help wondering what other metrics they use to analyze reporters, though.

  3. collapse expand

    A quick Google search brings up SourceWatch – a project of the Center For Media and Democracy. John Rendon, the founder of the Rendon Group, has been around for awhile and was quoted in 1998 as describing himself as “an information warrior, and a perception manager.” The SourceWatch profile claims they work for at least 78 countries and bring in copious amounts of cash. I wonder if they plug in the “comments” section attached to your True/Slant articles? Tom Medlicott

  4. collapse expand

    A laymans question: Given the obviousness of the admission,
    “We just help the military figure out what embed is right for a particular reporter,” one Rendon employee told me over drinks. “If a reporter is classified as “negative” they are less likely to go where the action is and more likely to be covering a platoon that guards sandbags in Herat.”
    The question is, so what’s new? When does this pressure to conform to expectations change how you report, write, etc. God forbid, are you persuaded that these are objective observations you can rely on in judging your work in order to become more professional and deserve greater access? Persuasion, or coercion? Neither? Just what it says it is? Grow up, this is always the way it is in war time?

  5. collapse expand

    Well, this left-leaning military wife/mom will be very careful what I put in your comments if that’s the case ;)
    Don’t want to see you sitting on the sandbags.
    This is very interesting, yet not at all surprising.

  6. collapse expand

    “…It should be noted that his [Village Voice] article was titles “Afghaniscrewed: How I Spent My Fall Vacation.” ”

    You get to write your own headlines?

  7. collapse expand

    Military Public Affairs Officers will sometimes ask for my bio. I usually reply that I’m a writer and repeat the name of the magazine that I’m writing for. Let them do their own research.

  8. collapse expand
    deleted account

    This just in: Military dumps Rendon. From Stars and Stripes:

    “The decision to terminate the Rendon contract was mine and mine alone. As the senior U.S. communicator in Afghanistan, it was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission,” said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, in an e-mail sent Sunday to Stars and Stripes.

    “I have been here since early June and at no time has anyone who worked for me ever conducted themselves in a manner as your newspaper alleged. I cannot and will not speculate on the past, although I have found no systemic issues with fairness or equity in the way U.S. forces have run their media embed program.”

    Nevertheless, good by, Rendon.

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    About Me

    I’m a writer and reporter living in Kabul, Afghanistan. For the past four years I’ve been an investigative reporter at various Village Voice Media weeklies, and before that I worked on documentary films in New York City.

    I am currently a journalism mentor and news editor for The Killid Group, a not-for-profit radio and print organization based in Kabul, with five radio stations and many bureaus throughout Afghanistan.

    My writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Village Voice, Modern Drunkard and other fine publications.

    Originally from Philadelphia, I’ve also worked in south Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 165
    Contributor Since: June 2009
    Location:Kabul, Afghanistan