Jun 1 2008

Network News Blackout on Pentagon Pundits

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/gregwest98

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/gregwest98

Weeks after the New York Times (4/20/08) broke the story that the Pentagon had been feeding talking points to TV military analysts, the broadcast TV networks have remained conspicuously silent about the issue.

According to the Times, the Pentagon recruited over 75 retired generals to act as “message force multipliers” in support of the Iraq War, receiving special Pentagon briefings and talking points that the analysts would often parrot on national television, “even when they suspected the information was false or inflated.” The Times even noted that at one 2003 briefing the military pundits were told that “we don’t have any hard evidence” about Iraq’s illicit weapons—a shocking admission the analysts decided not to share with the public.

The Times also documented the analysts’ ties to more than 150 military contractors—information that the media outlets did not disclose to viewers. According to a study by Media Matters (5/13/08), the analysts named in the Times article were cited more than 4,500 times on ABC, ABC News Now, CBS, CBS Radio Network, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News and NPR.

In the wake of the Times article, the networks and cable outlets refused a request to address the issue on PBS (NewsHour, 4/24/08). The cable and broadcast networks have yet to respond to FAIR’s call (Action Alert, 4/22/08) for them to change their practices to ensure that their audience will never again get official talking points passed off as independent analysis. Only NPR (NPR.org, 4/28/08) has publicly stated that they have new policies in place to ensure more careful vetting of analysts.

Fox has continued to feature the commentary of retired Gen. Robert H. Scales (Special Report, 4/21/08, 4/23/08), a participant in the Pentagon program, without noting either his affiliation with the Pentagon or the fact that he is a consultant for several military contractors. Fox has also continued to air commentary from retired Gen. Thomas McInerney (4/28/08), whom the Times had quoted responding after the Pentagon sent him fresh talking points in late 2006: “Good work. . . . We will use it.” Fox did not disclose McInerney’s participation in the Pentagon program, nor the fact that he sits on the boards of several military contractors.

While there have been segments on CNN (Newsroom, 4/20/08; Situation Room, 4/21/08; Reliable Sources, 4/27/08), PBS (NewsHour, 4/24/08) and NPR (Bryant Park Project, 4/24/08; On the Media, 4/25/08; All Things Considered, 5/1/08), the commercial broadcast networks that aired the Pentagon-affiliated pundits’ commentary seem to have entirely ignored the story.

When comments on NBC’s blackout on the scandal (Salon, 4/30/08) prompted NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams to respond on his blog (Daily Nightly, 4/29/08), he defended his news organization’s reliance on these pundits. Williams stated that he had “quickly entered into a close friendship with both” Gen. Wayne Downing and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, and “these two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line.” Declaring that “retired officers of that rank . . . are passionate patriots,” he added that “in my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers.”

Yet as the Nation magazine had documented three years prior (4/21/03), both McCaffrey and Downing were founding members of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an organization founded to “engage in educational advocacy efforts to mobilize U.S. and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein,” including through targeting the U.S. media.

Moreover, as the Nation documented, both retired generals had direct financial stakes in the war. McCaffrey, the magazine reported, was “on the board of Mitretek, Veritas Capital and two Veritas companies, Raytheon Aerospace and Integrated Defense Technologies—all of which have multimillion-dollar government defense contracts. . . . Since IDT is a specialist in tank upgrades, the company stands to benefit significantly from a massive ground war.”

McCaffrey was quoted in the Nation telling MSNBC viewers early in the war, “Thank God for the Abrams tank and . . . the Bradley fighting vehicle.” Both pieces of military hardware relied on parts sold by IDT. Downing was on the “board of directors at Metal Storm Ltd., a ballistics-technology company that has contracts with U.S. and Australian defense departments.”

Media outlets’ failure to disclose their military analysts’ ties highlights the need for more independent sources in war coverage, and for more stringent vetting practices to detect conflicts of interest. Instead of an explanation of what media are doing to ensure this kind of breach can’t happen again, the public is getting almost complete silence.

On May 5, FAIR issued a follow-up Action Alert calling on ABC, CBS and NBC to let the public know when they were at last going to air responses to the Pentagon pundits scandal. FAIR supporters are still waiting for a response from the networks.