Two weeks after a New York Times story (4/20/08) revealed a Pentagon propaganda campaign that had been feeding talking points to TV military analysts, many of whom also had ties to military contractors, the cable and broadcast networks that employed these analysts have almost entirely failed to report this crucial news story. Fox has even continued to feature commentary by two Pentagon-affiliated ex-generals without disclosing their conflicts of interest.
In the wake of the New York Times story and resulting calls for a congressional inquiry into the Pentagon pundits scandal, the Pentagon has announced that it has temporarily halted the program (New York Times, 4/26/08). Citing his concern that the article had raised “allegations that the Defense Department’s relationship with the retired military analysts was improper,” Defense Department spokesperson Robert Hastings told Stars & Stripes (4/26/08) that he had directed his staff “to suspend the activities that may be ongoing with retired military analysts to give me time to review the situation.”
The media organizations most implicated in facilitating the Pentagon’s propaganda program have been far less responsive. The networks and cable outlets refused a request to address the issue on PBS; as the NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff stated (4/24/08), “We invited Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC and NBC to participate, but they declined our offer or did not respond.” The cable and broadcast networks have yet to respond to FAIR’s request that they 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 With Brit Hume, 4/21/08, 4/23/08), whom the New York Times documented to be 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, including Nortel Government Solutions.
While there have been segments on CNN (Newsroom 4/20/08, Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer, 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 on the war seem to have entirely ignored the story.
When comments on NBC‘s blackout on the Pentagon pundits 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. Despite that, IDT is floundering — its stock price has fallen by half since March 2002 — a situation that one stock analyst says war could remedy. 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 a member of 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 to the Pentagon and to military contractors highlights the need for more stringent vetting practices to detect conflicts of interest and more independent sources in war coverage. The public deserves an explanation of what steps media organizations are taking to ensure this kind of breach never happens again. But instead of getting an explanation, the public is getting almost complete silence.
Ask ABC, CBS and NBC when they are going to air responses to the Pentagon pundits scandal.
Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects
Vice President, Standards and Policies