Media Critics Lambaste Networks for Lax Standards, Limited Response
An April 20, 2008 New York Times story revealed that the Pentagon encouraged so-called military analysts to put a positive spin on news coverage of the Iraq war. The story said that the retired military officers trumpeted administration talking points in appearances on network and cable news broadcasts and op-ed pieces in major newspapers in exchange for access to high-level military officers and Bush administration officials.
In the story, “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand” by David Barstow, several analysts expressed regret for their participation in the Pentagon’s “snow job.” But the Pentagon said the analysts were simply provided with factual information to keep the public informed.
The Times story quoted Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman who argued that it would be “a bit incredible” to believe the analysts would act as “puppets of the Defense Department.” But one of the analysts, retired Green Beret Robert S. Bevelacqua, said that is exactly what the Pentagon asked the retired officers to do. “It was them saying, ‘We need to stick our hands up your back and move your mouth for you.’”
Citing materials obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with analysts and former government officials, the story documents extensive contact between the retired officers and Bush administration officials, including intimate meetings with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The story said that the analysts were reluctant to criticize the war policy because it would mean an end to administration access and the benefits associated with it. Several of the analysts also served as consultants or directors for defense department contractors. For them, Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq and meetings with top military officials meant inside information on the products and services the military needed.
For example, one CNN analyst, Gen. James Marks, also worked as a manager for defense department contractor McNeil Technologies. The Times reported that in 2006 Marks was “intensively” bidding on a $4.6 billion military contract while at the same time appearing on CNN as a frequent military analyst on conditions in Iraq.
CNN admitted that the McNeil job should have disqualified Marks from working as an analyst, but maintained that it was unaware of the details of his role with the company, the story said. Marks said the McNeil job did not influence his CNN commentary. “I’ve got zero challenge separating myself from a business interest,” he told the Times. Marks currently serves as president of the McNeil division that won the contract, the story said.
Following the story, media commentators commended the Times for its investigative journalism and lambasted the broadcast news outlets for failing to vet their analysts for potential conflicts of interest. But several commentators noted the story’s rapid disappearance from the public spotlight and wondered whether the analysts’ connections to military officials are really news.
In an April 21 Huffington Post Web site article, Ari Melber called the Times reporting “meticulous and aggressive” and praised the news organization for filing suit to force the government to turn over the documents on which much of the article was based. Melber criticized the military’s role in the campaign and noted that several organizations had called on Congress to investigate.
Howard Kurtz wrote that the “degree of behind-the-scenes manipulation … is striking,” in his April 21 Washington Post column. But Marty Ryan, a Fox News executive producer, defended the cable network’s choice to employ the well-connected analysts. He told Kurtz that the inside knowledge and understanding of Pentagon strategy “makes them valuable to us.”
“[I]t’s a little unrealistic to think you’re going to do a big background check on everybody,” Ryan said. “Some of the business ties aren’t necessarily relevant when you’re asking them about a specific helicopter operation.”
Executives at Fox News had “refused to participate” in the original Times story.
At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald wrote that the refusal of the networks to respond to the Times’ inquiry was “the most incredible aspect of the story.” Greenwald continued: “Just ponder what that says about these organizations – there is a major expose in the [Times] documenting that these news outlets misleadingly shoveled government propaganda down the throats of their viewers on matters of war and terrorism and they don’t feel the least bit obliged to answer for what they did or knew about any of it.”
In the Times story, CNN and ABC offered brief comments, but neither admitted fault or suggested they would look closer at military analysts in the future. “We make it clear to [the analysts] we expect them to keep us closely apprised” of ethical conflicts, an ABC executive said. CBS, Fox, and NBC refused to comment in the April 20 story.
In an April 22 Los Angeles Times story, Scott Collins argued the original article made “minimal ripples” with the public because the TV networks ignored it and it had to compete with a democratic presidential primary in Pennsylvania. Collins pointed out that none of the Sunday morning talk shows discussed the article.
Collins and others, including Greenwald on Salon.com and Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, praised the New York Times’ reporting, but noted that the media’s acceptance of well-connected officials as independent analysts is no longer news. Mitchell and Greenwald pointed out two separate New York Times articles – one op-ed and one news story, both from 2003 – that reached similar conclusions.
“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. Increasingly, they consider the media simply a mouthpiece for whoever has the most power. You don’t have to tell John Q. Public that the fix is in; he takes it for granted,” Collins wrote.
Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, challenged the use of so-called “analysts” and “consultants” on news coverage of all subjects because they blur the line between journalists and sources. “What they are is a new breed of newsroom mutt,” Wasserman wrote in an April 28, 2008 Miami Herald column.
Wasserman argued that the line between journalists and sources should be clear. If an independent outside expert is necessary to speak with authority on a complicated issue, journalists should make sure they find a truly independent expert.
“Institutionalizing the news consultant is no way to enrich the news; it’s just another way to corrupt it. Consultants must go,” Wasserman wrote.
Wasserman spoke at the Silha Center’s 2008 Spring Ethics Forum on April 24. The forum focused on strategies for remaining independent when covering politics and war. (See “Forum Explores Journalistic Independence, War and Politics” in this issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
– Michael Schoepf
Silha Research Assistant