Wanted: Journalists who can keep quiet

The Bush administration is hiring more reporters. Only this time, it wants them to keep quiet. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week placed a help-wanted listing on journalismjobs.com, an employment website. The department sought reporters to participate in TOPOFF 3, a biennial exercise directed by Congress that simulates a terrorist attack on the United States.
The Bush administration is hiring more reporters. Only this time, it wants them to keep quiet.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week placed a help-wanted listing on journalismjobs.com, an employment website. The department sought reporters to participate in TOPOFF 3, a biennial exercise directed by Congress that simulates a terrorist attack on the United States.
File photo
After the furor over federal payments to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, the administration is emphasizing that its new journalism job is different.


The posting, which has since been taken off the site, sought applicants who can write copy for an online news service “reporting events within the exercise for an audience of exercise participants.”

The ad follows the disclosure that two other federal agencies had hired conservative commentators Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher to back administration proposals. Those contracts brought rebukes from media ethicists who said they blurred the line between journalism and propaganda.

But DHS spokesman Marc Short said the department’s job posting is “nothing like” the earlier controversies. Instead of acting as advocates, the reporters would be prohibited from relaying the results of the exercise outside of the “virtual news network” that is part of the training exercise.

“You must NOT be currently employed by a real news organization and will be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement barring you from writing about this in the future,” the job posting stated.

Short said the department wanted to hire reporters to help department officials better understand how the media would respond to a weapon-of-mass-destruction attack.

“We want them to act like reporters and to push the story forward,” Short said. The exercise would help public-relations officials better respond to any real terrorist attack, he said.

In January, USA Today reported that the Education Department paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education program. Tribune Media Services dropped distribution of Williams’s weekly column in response.

Subsequently, it was discovered that the Department of Health and Human Services paid Gallagher, a syndicated columnist, $21,500 to help develop materials related to the president’s marriage initiative.

Bush later said that federal agencies should not employ journalists to advocate his administration’s policies.

Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Pew-funded group that helps critiques media coverage, said that it isn’t unusual for journalists to interact, on a voluntary basis, with the entities they cover.

Defense reporters, for example, often observe war games with the understanding they won’t write about them afterward to develop sources or better understand their beat.

But paying reporters is trickier territory because it raises potential future conflicts even if the reporter doesn’t now cover the governmental entity writing the check, Rosenstiel said.

“There is a whole industry called public relations staffed with people who used to be journalists” who could do the work, he said.

The firm Ogilvy Public Relations is helping DHS hire the reporters. Zachary Twigg of Ogilvy said the posting was taken off the site because a number of applicants responded.

The reporters will be expected to start “around March 14.” The job would last for three to four weeks. Journalists will receive “competitive pay rates,” according to the job ad.

In what might strike some reporters as an accurate reflection of the real world, Short added: “We will try to pay them as little as possible.”

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