June 21, 2007

A Media Mystery

Character of the Coverage

Even when they were covered, PSCs were often tangential aspects of larger stories about other Iraq-related issues or events. Many sprang from U.S. government actions or reports, such as the Washington Post’s April 23, 2005 story “Contractor, Army Office Fell Short” which ran on the front of the financial section.. Another example was USA Today’s July 29, 2005 story “U.S. Contractors spent $766 M on Security in Iraq, GAO says.” Pieces like these discuss problems with contractors, but don’t delve heavily into what the contractors are doing in Iraq.

Other stories about PSCs were often less about what exactly the companies were doing in Iraq than questions about financial accountability. The first piece the Washington Post did that used any of our search terms was an October 9, 2003 story headlined, “Spending On Iraq Sets off Gold Rush,” with the subhead “Lawmakers Fear U.S. is Losing Control of Funds.”

Some articles just touched on the use of PSCs as they focused primarily on the war. For instance, in “War, Just a Click Away,” which ran on Washingtonpost.com on August 10, 2005, contractors are just a small part of an essay on the growth of war coverage online. Or consider the New York Times piece “One Maker Looks Inside, Not to Hollywood,” which ran on May 8, 2006. It was about a new video game about PSCs, but didn’t address the issue in a larger context.

The cable news outlets dealt with the issue mostly in broad strokes. In June 2006 CNN several times aired a report on “Civilian Contractors in Iraq,” but that report largely focused on the dangers contractors were facing in the country, not specifically the use of PSCs as stand-ins for U.S. troops. Fox News aired two stories that touched on the issue – and one of those was a December 2, 2005 segment of the show Hannity & Colmes that was a broad “Analysis of the Situation in Iraq.” The discussion, in part, centered on a video that purported to show British PSC employees firing on civilians.

Most local newspapers barely touched the topic of PSCs. Even among big metro dailies, like the Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times and San Diego Union-Tribune (which each ran one story), the PSC issue received very little attention. If they published any at all, most local papers ran one piece on the issue, often in the opinion pages and by non-journalists.

The Richmond Times Dispatch, for instance, ran an op/ed from a student at American University on August 22, 2005 headlined, “How Do Private Contractors Fit Military’s Mission?” The Orlando Sentinel ran an op/ed from a contributor on August 8, 2005 with the headline, “Expect Private Military Forces to Flex More Muscle.” The Chicago Sun-Times published an Op/Ed piece from an outside contributor on September 10, 2006 headlined, “5 of the Worst War Profiteers: There’s Money to be Made – By Any Means Necessary.”

Other stories that included a mention of our key words and phrases were company or personality profiles, specific allegations against a firm or reports of death or injury.

PSCs have seen their share of military action. While it is difficult to get a clear count of the number killed in Iraq, a tally of the security contractors listed on the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks victims of the violence in Iraq, shows at least 170 have died there.[1]

These deaths and other incidents did generate stories. National papers and the bigger metro dailies reported big gun battles and casualties. Smaller local papers published stories about injured or killed members of their communities. And other local papers based closed to big PSC companies wrote stories when their local employer suffered casualties.

As part of this examination we entered the names of all the members of the Private Security Company Association of Iraq through the Nexis database over the same time period we checked our key phrases. The searches generated a few hits for some PSCs and dozens for others. The stories we found were a mix of things, but incident stories dominated.

Blackwater was the exception. The firm generated the most coverage by far (more than 400 stories[2]). There were a number of reasons for that all that coverage. First, its employees were victims of the heavily covered Fallujah attack. Second, that incident led others to write additional stories on the firm from the perspective of the dangers its people faced and the problems it had coordinating with the military. And third, a recently published book was written on the company “Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army.” No other firm we searched came anywhere near the number of mentions Blackwater did. The next highest number of hits was for Crescent Security Group which turned up in 77 stories – again largely due to a single incident when some of its employees were kidnapped.

Two newspapers located near Blackwater headquarters, the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk Virginia and the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, accounted for a good deal of the coverage of that firm. To get a sense of how those outlets covered the best-known PSC, we searched any stories they published that contained the term “Blackwater” over the time period of our study. The News & Observer published 75 stories with the word “Blackwater” and the Virginian-Pilot ran 83 articles that included that term. Only about a quarter of the coverage was about the issue and role of PSCs as private military forces.

More of the News & Observer coverage focused on Blackwater’s ties to Halliburton, the giant military contractor firm that hired Blackwater to provide security for its personnel, facilities and convoys.  The coverage often examined the issue of cost overruns and billing. Many of these stories broke new ground on that financing issue. Also noteworthy was a six-part series in 2004 on the deaths of the Blackwater personnel in Fallujah, “The Bridge,” some of which dealt with the larger questions around PSCs. The Virginian-Pilot primarily covered Blackwater as a local business, reporting on everything from the company requesting permits for roads and firings ranges to its place in the world of private security companies. Its 2006 six-part series, “Blackwater: Inside America’s Private Army,” also delved into the question of PSCs being used as soldiers.

 


[1] Number was reached by adding together all the contractors killed who were listed as “security contractor,” “security expert,” “security consultant,” “security specialist” or “security guard.”

[2] This 400 number is higher than out 248-story count because it includes that just mentioned Blackwater but none of our key search terms. These stories included accounts of Blackwater incidents and casualties.