Since before the start of the Iraq war you’ve seen these former generals and colonels, dubbed “military experts or analysts,” on the network television and cable news shows, heard them on radio and read them in the newspapers. They provided background and perspective on military operations and the fight against terrorism post-9/11.
Turns out many apparently had a specific agenda to support the administration laid out in “talking points” by Pentagon public relations folks. And they had a business conflict of interest as well, scurrying for billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts for Iraq and Afghanistan.
The disclosures in an extraordinary investigative report by David Barstow on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times have raised a number of questions: about how independent these experts really were; about the role of the Pentagon in providing background information vs. propaganda; about the failure of the news media to ask for financial disclosure from the experts, and about the networks’ refusal even now to respond adequately to the allegations in the Times’ report.
Ties to contractors
But first the heart of Barstow’s story, which depended in part on some 8,000 Pentagon documents, including e-mails, which the Times went to federal court to obtain:
“To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as ‘military analysts’ whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world. Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance…The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.
“Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the …military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants. The companies include defense heavyweights, but also scores of smaller companies, all part of a vast assemblage of contractors scrambling for hundreds of billions in military business generated by the administration’s war on terror.” The Times even noted that it published over the years nine op-eds by the experts.
Assembling the group of 75 experts to achieve what she called “information dominance” was the brainchild of Torie Clark, a former public relations executive who was assistant secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld, the Times reported. The experts were briefed and given special access to Rumsfeld and other defense officials, taken on trips and provided talking points presenting the administration’s case. (CBS and Fox News refused to comment to the Times and NBC would not allow executives to be interviewed. Spokesmen for CNN and ABC said the networks did not have written ethical guidelines governing the military analysts’ potential conflicts.)
Less than shocking
Howard Kurtz, the media critic for The Washington Post, tried to put the controversy in perspective: “It’s hardly shocking that career military men would largely reflect the Pentagon’s point of view, just as Democratic and Republican ‘strategists’ stay in touch with aides to the candidates they defend on the air. But the degree of behind-the-scenes manipulation…is striking, as is the lack of disclosure by the networks of some of these government and business connections. With an aura of independence, many of the analysts used their megaphones, and the prestige of their rank, to help sell a war that was not going well.”
Kurtz quoted Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman as saying that the former officers are “highly educated, experienced in their field. To suggest they could be puppets of the Defense Department is a little insulting to all of them. … Not all of them are advocates for everything the department is doing.”
Scott Collins explained in the Los Angeles Times why he didn’t think the story had as much public impact as it should have:
“It was the kind of juicy investigative piece that journalists like to call a ‘holy [expletive]’ story. But the public reaction has seemed more along the lines of, ‘Yeah …so?’
“Well-sourced and carefully constructed, dealing with a topic of pressing national interest, the story looked destined to dominate the national conversation, the same way viewer outrage over ABC’s Democratic debate did last week. Instead the Pentagon story made minimal ripples. Why would that be? Few stories can thrive these days without TV exposure, and there the Times’ scoop was handicapped from the start.
“The Sunday-morning talk shows ignored the piece. No surprise that, perhaps, as the story suggested that news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC had broadcast the analysts’ talking points about the Iraq war and other military matters without asking too many questions.”
A second problem with the story, Collins wrote, was “bad timing. Whatever the exigencies of newspaper deadlines, it was hard to showcase a major investigation on a weekend dominated by a hotly contested primary and the pope’s visit to America. Beset by breaking news, the networks had relatively limited shelf space for an enterprise story they obviously weren’t thrilled about to begin with.
“But the biggest hurdle for the story’s impact may have been one journalists have trouble seeing. Many Americans confronted with stories of media manipulation by government officials aren’t, at this point, shocked and awed. Instead they’ve come to expect it.”
Conflict of interest
Tom Connery, a long-time journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, was bothered equally by the generals’ conduct and that of the networks.
“It’s extremely disappointing that so many of these ‘analysts’ toed the company line even when they were either suspicious of the Pentagon/administration information or knew they were being sandbagged,” Connery told MinnPost. “I’m just stunned that the networks do not see that this is a clear case of conflict of interest. It raises serious ethical issues. Most of these retired generals weren’t applying their knowledge and expertise; they were being shills for a specific point of view and viewers and citizens should know that. Shame on the networks and shame on the generals.”
Down Summit Avenue, Clay Steinman, a humanities and media studies professor at Macalester College, was impressed with the Times investigation about how “corrupted” the government-media connection had become.
“People depend on their connection to the Pentagon for contracts let alone money they get from the networks… and the networks put them on as though dispassionate reliable sources,” Steinman said in an interview.
“It’s not just the government doing it, but the whole military contracting system doing it… and the networks being irresponsible in using them. People should have to disclose monetary connections to defense contractors.”
Perhaps, Collins argued in the Los Angeles Times, the American people “can be excused for not being all that surprised” by the findings in The New York Times story. “That is the price we pay for having a government that’s not afraid to use sophisticated — and often brazenly misleading — PR tactics. By Monday night, the Pentagon story had already slipped to No. 4 on the Times website’s ‘most popular’ index. The top story? ‘Cat Lovers Appreciate Soul Mate in Vatican.'”
Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.