A lengthy April 20 New York Times investigation of the Pentagon's program of feeding talking points to military pundits featured on TV newscasts raised disturbing questions about the media's role as a conduit for Pentagon propaganda.
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 that many of the analysts had ties to "military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air"--information that the media outlets did not disclose to viewers. The Times reported that the "analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants." The analysts themselves told the Times that "the networks asked few questions about their outside business interests," and "were only dimly aware" of the special Pentagon briefings they were receiving.
While the Times article focused on the role of the Pentagon, the parties that arguably have most to answer for are the media organizations that relied on these Pentagon analysts and failed to disclose blatant conflicts of interest posed by their ties with defense contractors.
The military analysts' ties with military contractors and pro-war advocacy groups had been documented as far back as 2003, when The Nation (4/21) reported that prominent analysts like NBC's Barry McCaffrey and Wayne Downing were among the pundits who "have ideological or financial stakes in the war. Many hold paid advisory board and executive positions at defense companies and serve as advisers for groups that promoted an invasion of Iraq." As the Nation reported, McCaffrey told MSNBC viewers early in the war, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and... the Bradley fighting vehicle." Unbeknownst to viewers, McCaffrey was sitting on the board of a company called IDT, which received multi-million dollar contracts related to both of those pieces of military hardware.
As the Times story made clear, NBC was hardly the only offender. As a former Pentagon official told the Times, "CNN failed to disclose the fact that, "for nearly three years" on-air military analyst James Marks "was deeply involved in the business of seeking government contracts, including contracts related to Iraq."
This is not to suggest that there are no ethical standards at the networks--at least one military analyst has been sanctioned for inappropriate behavior. In May 2007, retired Army Major General John Batiste was fired as a CBS News consultant for appearing in a VoteVets television ad that criticized George W. Bush. A CBS vice president justified Batiste's firing by invoking standards that seem to have been entirely missing in the case of the retired generals:
Of course, the Pentagon's propaganda plan would have little effect if not for the enthusiastic participation of the corporate media. As a former Pentagon official told the Times, "We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message."
The Times likened the program to "other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism," but that would seem to discount the fact that the media have for decades demonstrated a preference for featuring retired military officials in their war coverage, with little if any serious efforts to offer balancing perspectives. The run-up to the Iraq invasion was no different. As former CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan explained (4/20/03):
"I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war
started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, 'Here are the generals we're thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war,' and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important."
Media executives have historically rationalized their disproportionate reliance on analysts from within the ranks of the military by claiming that they are on the air to share independent expertise about military affairs-something that need not be balanced. As former CNN vice President Frank Sesno stated to journalist Amy Goodman in 1999, "Generals are analysts, and peace activists are advocates."
In light of the fresh documentation that many of the media's military analysts were Pentagon advocates, it is time for the media to rethink this assumption.
Ask the cable and broadcast networks to take action to ensure that the news will no longer serve as a conduit for Pentagon talking points passed off as independent analysis. They could start by expanding the range of independent sources who provide commentary on the war.
Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects
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Vice President, Standards and Policies