Washington Babylon — May 16, 2008, 1:32 pm

Blogger Roundtable Coordinator: Let’s find people to “carry our water”

Once more I’m going to return to the topic of those blogger roundtables organized by the Pentagon, which I have discussed several times since last summer and most recently last month. In that last item, I discussed the New York Times story that revealed how the Pentagon worked with retired military officials and prepared them to serve as supposedly independent media “analysts.” That was part of a broader Defense Department media program that included the blogger roundtables, and which looked for “surrogates” to whom Pentagon talking points could be fed.

Since I first wrote about the topic, bloggers who participated attacked me for, they said, falsely portraying the roundtables as a media manipulation effort. They were strictly independent, the bloggers wrote, and even noted that a few liberal-types took part. In a 2007 post at The D-Ring called “How Harper’s sensationalizes blogger outreach,” Steve Field wrote:

Recent postings…by Ken Silverstein suggest that the Pentagon is engaged in a propaganda campaign, managed by junior political appointees, to seed its message among conservative bloggers. As someone who has participated in the “surrogate outreach” program, I can tell you first hand that Silverstein’s reporting is sensationalized drivel. Mr. Silverstein makes much ado about a junior political appointee who supposedly runs the program named Erin Healy. She may have a toe dipped into the waters of online outreach, but I can tell you that if she does have anything to do with the program, it is cursory at best.

The real key player in the Pentagon’s online communications strategy is Roxie Merritt, a retired Navy Captain who was brought by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Allison Barber on to manage the Pentagon’s new media operations. Merritt is a savvy and seasoned professional communicator who understands the importance of online outreach. It is she, and not Healy, who is responsible for executing this program.

Steve should check out this internal email, which the Times obtained in the course of its reporting and which the Pentagon subsequently released. Merritt wrote it in 2005, before the creation of the blogger roundtables, but it gives a good idea about how that “savvy and seasoned professional communicator” he mentioned viewed her task:

I recommend we develop a core group from within our media analyst list of those that we can count on to carry our water. They become part of a “hot list” of those that we immediately make calls to or put on an email distro list before we contact or respond to media on hot issues. We can also do more proactive engagement with this list and give them tips on what stories to focus on and give them heads up on issues as they are developing. By providing them with key and valuable information, they become the key go to guys for the networks and it begins to weed out the less reliably friendly analysts by the networks themselves…

Media ops and outreach can work on a plan to maximize use of the analysts and figure out a system by which we keep our most reliably friendly analysts plugged in on everything from crisis response to future plans. This trusted core group will be more than willing to work closely with us because we are their bread and butter and the more they know, the more valuable they are to the networks.

(Note: Glenn Greenwald of Salon has written about this memo, in the context of a bigger story on the Pentagon’s “media analysts” project.)

I never believed that all the bloggers were in the tank for the Pentagon (though certainly a few were), but thought they were naïve for insisting that the roundtables were simply an innocent “outreach” effort by the Department of Defense. This definitely clarifies our understanding of the situation.

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