Imams for Hire

02 January 2006


“Insight and Influence.
Anywhere. Anytime.”

NYT reports that the Lincoln Group, a U.S. contractor recently exposed as subverting the Iraqi press by placing propagandaarticles, has also been making quiet payments to Sunni clerics in Iraq. The Times article, by David S. Cloud and Jeff Gerth, is a clumsy effort, unsure of where to point readers’ indignation. After all, is it a bad thing if the U.S. hires Sunni clerics to advise the military on better relations?

Yes, actually, if you believe in freedom of religion. The problem seems to be that payments weren’t public, although the article leaves that unclear. It’s easy to understand why — an imam accepting American cash would likely become a target — but where does that leave Iraqis who looked to these clerics for counsel, unaware of their financial ties? The problem with the Timesstory is that it doesn’t tell us. They didn’t bother to talk to any Iraqis.

More revealing is the paper’s exposure, at the end of the story, of American Enterprise think tanker Michael Rubin. When the Lincoln story first broke last month, the Times quoted Rubin as an outside observer, defending Lincoln. This month, we learn that Rubin also rides the Lincoln gravy train. How much did he get? We don’t know — for once, Rubin doesn’t feel like talking.

That’s not the Times‘ fault, but their failure to note Rubin’s ideological perspective is. Critics have complained with good reasoning about the sometimes-reductionist labeling of talking heads as “conservative” or “liberal.” The Times has responded not with needed nuances, but by limiting use of the terms to extreme or self-declared cases. This has resulted in the creation of a vast “middle” of implicitly reasonable discourse.

This obscures the fact that Rubin is not a “scholar” in the traditional sense of the term, but a committed neoconservative activist, a former official of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and, according to two reliable reporters in the liberal magazine Mother Jones, one of Wolfowitz’s cheerleaders in the early stages of the war.

This doesn’t mean Rubin shouldn’t be quoted in the paper, but it does mean that he should be identified as more than a “Middle East scholar.” Rubin’s an apparatchik.

And a loony one, to boot. The Times‘ ideology-erasure policy not only recasts conservatives (and in other cases, leftists) as centrists, it also gives its talking heads the appearance of reasonable detachment. You be the judge. (More about Rubin here, from the leftist International Relations Center.)

The scandal revealed by the Times‘ report isn’t that the U.S. is undermining free speech and free religion in Iraq — Rubin was correct in telling the Times that such activities are no surprise — it’s the uncritical sourcing of news stories with think tank propagandists presented as dispassionate scholars. Perspectives of people such as Rubin should be in the news — after all, he helped make the events under discussion happen — but they should not be categorized as outside “experts.” That’s like quoting a naked PETA activist as a neutral observer in an article about fur.

–Jeff Sharlet

Additional resources: The leftist Center for Media and Democracy analyzes the Lincoln Group. Even, a trade publication, finds Lincoln shady.

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