The U.S. military on Thursday acknowledged that a contractor has been rating reporters' war coverage, but insisted that the rating system is not used to determine whether to grant media outlets' requests to embed journalists with U.S. forces.
In a lengthy statement, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan also said that the practice is not used to "rate" individual reporters or news outlets themselves, but to "help assess performance in communicating information effectively to the public."
The acknowledgment comes at a time when public support for the Afghanistan war is falling, even as President Obama escalates the U.S. presence there -- an escalation that has coincided with rising casualties.
The military statement said the contract with The Rendon Group tasks the company with analyzing "media trends" and measuring the "effectiveness" of communications and events by tracking subsequent coverage.
"The Rendon contract provides several analytic reports, to include characterization of specific topical stories/events as positive, negative or neutral, as well as whether media reporting is an accurate portrayal of the facts as we know them," the statement said.
The Rendon Group is a Washington-based media monitoring firm that has had a hand in efforts to drum up support for the first Gulf War and worked with the Defense Department post-Sept. 11, 2001, on message management for the war in Afghanistan. Its chief, John Rendon, is a former head of the Democratic National Committee and top campaign aide for President Jimmy Carter.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said no decision has been made on whether to end the contract with Rendon, but that nothing he's seen "violated" any policy.
Pressured further about the rating system, Whitman said, "A tool like this serves no purpose and for me doesn't provide any value. As I've said before, the metric we use at the Department of Defense to rate a story is based on whether or not the story is accurate."
The response came after Stars and Stripes first reported that the contractor had been recently updating "confidential profiles" of journalists' work.
According to examples obtained by FOX News, the effort has continued through this month. In one Rendon PowerPoint presentation, a couple dozen headlines are arranged based on the nationality of the news outlet. U.S. outlets include The Washington Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today, The Associated Press and The New York Times.
Each headline is rated with a plus sign, a negative sign or a capital "N," presumably for neutral.
The Stars and Stripes article cited examples that suggest the military might try to influence coverage deemed as negative.
The analysis said one newspaper reporter's negative stories "could possibly be neutralized" by giving him different quotes from officials. Another said a TV reporter's coverage was "subjective" and suggested guiding him toward "the positive work of a successful operation," according to the article.
The military statement Thursday said the contractor is not keeping dossiers on reporters, aside from basic biographical information and a "snapshot" of recent coverage topics.
A spokesman for Central Command told FOX News that the program was used only for "background information" on reporters and not considered when embed requests were made.
The Rendon Group also released a statement defending its practices.
"The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters. The analysis is not provided as the basis for accepting or rejecting a specific journalist's inquiries and TRG does not make recommendations as to who the military should or should not interview," the statement said.
But Stars and Stripes reported that the military was screening reporters for embed assignments based on past coverage. And an Aug. 14 memo from Rendon showed that past coverage is at least taken into account during the process. The memo, obtained by FOX News, included an analysis of an unidentified reporter's coverage as part of an effort to assess "expectations" for the embed. In this reporter's case, the coverage was deemed "straightforward," with an emphasis on military strategy and human-interest angles.
The military statement Thursday said the contract "provides a range of services" beyond the analysis of news reports. The contract covers the writing of press releases, speeches, briefing materials and other forms of communication.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and Justin Fishel contributed to this report.