FCC, Other Agencies also Investigating
The first of three federal agencies scheduled to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the use of retired military officers as independent analysts on television news programs reported in January 2009 that it found “insufficient evidence” to support allegations that the Defense Department violated federal law.
The New York Times first reported in April 2008 that the military analysts’ often pro-war commentary could increase their access to the Pentagon, and in turn, lead to lucrative consulting deals with defense contractors. The story described a web of conflicting interests tying the retired officers to the Pentagon and private contractors while at the same time the networks touted their independence. (See “Times’ Story about Military Analysts Makes Ripples, Not Waves” in the Spring 2008 Silha Bulletin.)
The Times’ investigation led several Democratic legislators to call for inquiries by the Defense Department, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Defense Department Inspector General, the first to issue a report, found nothing wrong with the department’s public relations program, which involved a series of high level meetings with the analysts at the Pentagon and several department-paid trips overseas.
Meanwhile, the Times followed up on its original investigative work with a lengthy Nov. 30, 2008 story describing the continued use of the military analysts by television news programs without disclosing their substantial self-interests in defense companies that stand to profit from the ongoing war.
Report: Nothing Wrong with Rumsfeld’s Public Relations Campaign
In response to the April 2008 story in the Times, Congress directed the Defense Department Inspector General to submit a report discussing the department’s public relations campaign involving military analysts. In January, the inspector issued a report finding no wrongdoing.
The congressional directive was included in the 2009 military appropriations bill, P. L. 110-417, signed by President Bush on Oct. 14, 2008. The provision requesting the report also directs the GAO to prepare a legal opinion on whether the department’s activities violated federal laws prohibiting propaganda. That opinion is now overdue, but it had not been posted on the GAO’s Web site as the Bulletin went to press.
In addition to ordering reports, section 1056(a) of the 2009 appropriations bill also reiterates the ban on using congressionally provided funds for domestic propaganda. “No part of any funds authorized to be appropriated in this or any other Act shall be used by the Department of Defense for publicity or propaganda purposes within the United States not otherwise specifically authorized by law,” the bill states.
The Defense Department Inspector General’s report, dated Jan. 14, 2009 but released two days later on a Friday afternoon, declares that “the evidence in this case was insufficient to conclude” that the Defense Department’s “outreach activities … violated statutory prohibitions on publicity or propaganda.”
The report focused on the department’s efforts to meet with the television analysts and provide information about military activities. The April 2008 Times story suggested those high-level meetings were only available to analysts who expressed pro-war views. Critical analysts would find themselves left out, the story said.
But the Inspector General’s report concluded that such retaliatory actions were rare, and that the department had done nothing wrong.
The substantive conclusions turn on the definition of the terms “publicity and propaganda.” The report states that the terms have three potential meanings: activities involving “self-aggrandizement or puffery;” activities that are “purely partisan in nature;” and activities that are “covert, that is, the communications do not reveal to the target audience the government’s role in sponsoring the material.”
According to the report, the Defense Department’s activities were not “puffery” because they were simply intended to “inform” the retired officers “so they would be better prepared to speak publicly on [Defense Department] combat operations overseas,” not to “aggrandize” the department’s policies or personnel. Nor were the department’s activities “partisan” because retired officers were not “asked or expected to conceal the source of information,” only the name of the official who provided it.
Finally, the report concludes the activities were not “covert” because inspectors did not find documentation to “institutionalize and formalize” covert procedures; there was no effort to “identify, recruit, or train” particularly influential or effective analysts; only one analyst, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, was “disinvited” to regular briefings because of unfavorable commentary; the analysts were “distinguished military officers” who would recognize any effort to “manage/manipulate” information; and the department’s efforts to catalog the analysts commentary was consistent with Defense Department policies and rules.
The report also states that it is consistent with department policy to inform the public of its positions and refute attacks on its policies. The report states: “As a network vice-president with 40 years of media experience told us, ‘Everyone understands that the Pentagon gives out information that is not harmful to its interests. It can’t be expected to put out information that is harmful. I consider that fair.’”
The report garnered little attention from the popular press, but in a Jan.17, 2009 Times story by David Barstow, the investigative reporter whose April 2008 story prompted the report, several Democratic legislators criticized the Inspector General’s report for misrepresenting the facts. “To say there are factual inaccuracies in this report is the understatement of the century. I think it is a whitewash. It appears to be the parting gift of the Pentagon to [then-President Bush],” Rep. Paul W. Hodes (D-N.H.) said in the story.
Among the factual errors, the Times story pointed out that the Inspector General’s list of 43 military analysts with no connections to defense contractors included McCaffrey, whose extensive ties to contractors were detailed in the November 2008 story by Barstow.
In a Jan. 17, 2009 news release available on PR Newswire and McCaffrey’s Web site, the retired general lashed out at the Times and Barstow and indicated he considered himself at least partially vindicated by the report.
“Barstow should not have been allowed to defend his own flawed reporting in the face of contrary sworn official evidence to his central argument. The [Defense Department] Inspector General report mentions me and other retired military analysts and notes that ‘extensive searches found no instance [where the retired officers used their increased access] to achieve a competitive advantage’ and stated that there was ‘no conflict.’ … This is Journalism 101. Barstow fails to reveal a central inconvenient fact which undermines his entire 5000+ word attack,” McCaffrey said in the statement.
But Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt responded to similar criticism from NBC News President Steve Capus in a January 25 column, arguing that Barstow’s articles focused on a distinct issue compared to the Inspector General’s report. The government report was primarily concerned with whether government officials broke the law. Barstow’s articles, on the other hand, disclosed conflicts of interest that called the reliability of the analysts’ commentary into question, but never addressed the legality of their conduct or the military’s conduct.
Hoyt also defended the Times’ decision to assign Barstow to cover the government report. “It would [create an inherent conflict] if the report had made Barstow himself the issue, but investigative reporters routinely write follow-up articles, and Barstow’s was a straightforward account that said the inspector general ‘found no wrongdoing,’” he wrote in the column.
FCC Investigates Military Analysts
Following the April Times’story, Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) sent then-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin a letter urging an investigation of the networks and the analysts for possible violations of sponsorship identification rules. Those rules, 47 C.F.R. section 73.1212, require that broadcast stations disclose the sponsor of any content that is directly or indirectly paid for by a third party.
The rules, and the statutes on which they are based, 47 U.S.C. sectionsection 317 and 508, originated as a response to “payola” at radio stations. “Payola” refers to payments made by music producers to disc jockeys in exchange for increased airtime for particular songs or artists.
Recently, however, the rules have been used to levy fines against a television analyst who promoted Department of Education policies on air without disclosing he had accepted payments from the department in exchange for his support. (See “Cable Companies Fined for Airing Paid-for Punditry” in the Fall 2007 Silha Bulletin.) The rules have also been cited as a way to combat controversial video news releases – pre-packaged segments produced by private corporations or government entities and designed to look like regular news stories. (See “FCC Fines ‘Fake News’ Produced by Undisclosed Sponsors” in the Fall 2007 Silha Bulletin.)
In their letter, DeLauro and Dingell argue that the military analysts were indirectly paid – through access to military officials and Defense Department-paid travel to Iraq and Cuba – for promoting a pro-war position in their television appearances. According to the legislators, that violates the FCC rules.
“When seemingly objective television commentators are in fact highly motivated to promote the agenda of a government agency, a gross violation of the public trust occurs. The American people should never be subject to a covert propaganda campaign but rather should be clearly notified of who is sponsoring what they are watching. We therefore respectfully request that you immediately commence a full investigation of this matter to determine whether any violations have occurred,” the May 2, 2008 letter said.
According to an Oct. 6, 2008story on usnews.com, the online companion to U.S. News & World Report, the FCC sent letters to each of the analysts seeking information and setting a 30-day deadline for response. As this issue went to press, the FCC had not released any additional information about its investigation.
New York Times Continues Investigation of Military Analysts
In his April 2008 story about military analysts, the Times’ Barstow described the connections between dozens of analysts and the Defense Department’s campaign to use the retired officers as “message force multipliers” pushing a pro-war message to the American people. The follow-up, which appeared Nov. 30, 2008, focused on NBC analyst and retired Gen. McCaffrey’s ties to defense companies that stood to profit from a prolonged war.
Like the first story, the follow-up generated praise from media critics for its investigative depth, scorn from McCaffrey who insisted on his ability to provide “objective” analysis, and silence from the television networks.
The November story explained McCaffrey’s connections to several military suppliers, including the hedge fund Veritas, which owns several defense contractors. According to the Times, McCaffrey has earned more than $500,000 from Veritas while appearing on NBC without disclosing the connection and providing commentary that could further Veritas’s interests.
For example, early in the war Veritas acquired DynCorp, a business involved in the training of foreign security forces. The company earns 37 percent of its revenues from business in Afghanistan and Iraq, the story said. In the summer of 2005 McCaffrey, by then a member of the DynCorp board, departed on an eight-day tour of Iraq paid for by the defense department. When he returned, he made extensive appearances on NBC News programming praising American progress in Iraq, especially in training new Iraqi security forces. NBC did not disclose McCaffrey’s ties to DynCorp.
One year earlier, before taking his seat on the DynCorp board, McCaffrey had been highly critical of the training received by Iraqi security forces. According to the Times, he had called the forces “badly equipped, badly trained, [and] politically unreliable.”
Many media critics praised Barstow’s reporting and criticized NBC and other television news outlets for ignoring the apparent conflict. On Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald called NBC’s conduct “plainly dishonest” and argued the network had entered “self-protective mode.”
Greenwald obtained e-mails “from a very reliable source” that were exchanged between McCaffrey and NBC executives discussing an appropriate response to Barstow’s story. According to Greenwald, the e-mails made clear the response would focus on McCaffrey’s character, history of critical commentary on the war, and distinguished military career, without addressing the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In the Times story McCaffrey seemed to do exactly that in a statement he sent to the newspaper. McCaffrey emphasized his criticism of “Rumsfeld’s arrogance and mismanagement” of the war and stressed his military accomplishments. “Thirty-seven years of public service. Four combat tours. Wounded three times. The country knows me as a nonpartisan and objective national security expert with solid integrity,” the statement said.
According to Greenwald, McCaffrey’s response ignored the real issue: NBC presented the retired general as an objective analyst on issues in which he had considerable undisclosed self interests. That created the appearance of a conflict no matter how strong McCaffrey’s character. “NBC points to the numerous shiny medals on McCaffrey’s chest in order to imply that it is simply wrong and offensive to question the propriety of such a great and credentialed man,” Greenwald wrote.
Joseph Galloway, a reporter, former soldier, and self-described friend of McCaffrey, defended the retired general in an opinion piece published on McClatchyDC.com on Dec. 4, 2008. Galloway praised McCaffrey’s character, calling him “a true American hero with service to the nation bred into him and with the old West Point motto of Duty, Honor, Country still ringing in his ears.”
But notably, Galloway specifically declined to address NBC’s failure to disclose McCaffrey’s ties to defense contractors. “Whether NBC News … should have disclosed McCaffrey’s business dealings is a different issue,” he wrote.
– Michael Schoepf