Charles Kaiser on coverage of the Pentagon's propaganda scandal
Every so often, the New York Times runs a story that is everything it ought to be: sophisticated, intelligent, enterprising, and thorough. David Barstow's superb piece last Sunday met all of those standards. In 7,500 carefully chosen words, Barstow described a huge Pentagon propaganda scandal, in which retired military officers alternated between spouting the Bush administration line on all of the major TV networks and collecting inside information for the military contractors who employed them so they could get more contracts connected to the war.
These army officers—presented as objective experts by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC—actually work with "more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants," Barstow reported. The companies are "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 total cost of the Pentagon's propaganda program is impossible to calculate. But in an online discussion the day after his article appeared, Barstow pointed out that the Pentagon had paid private contractors "hundreds of thousands of dollars" just to monitor the officers' on-air performances—and to make sure that they never strayed from the message they had been tasked with. The Pentagon also paid for special trips to Iraq and Guantanamo for its talking heads—and when they were taken to Iraq in 2003, "they were flown each morning on military transport planes from their hotel in Kuwait to Baghdad, and then back to Kuwait at day's end."
Many experts believe the Pentagon's program violated federal laws dating back to the 1920s that prohibit the federal government from participating in propaganda like this.
The Times sued the Pentagon to obtain more than 8,000 pages about its "message force multipliers," who could be "counted on to deliver administration 'themes and messages' to millions of Americans 'in the form of their own opinions.'"
"Again and again," Barstow wrote, the administration enlisted analysts "as a rapid reaction force to rebut what it viewed as critical news coverage, some of it by the networks' own Pentagon correspondents. For example, when news articles revealed that troops in Iraq were dying because of inadequate body armor, a senior Pentagon official wrote to his colleagues: 'I think our analysts—properly armed—can push back in that arena.'"
Because most of the retired generals the Pentagon had recruited saw the propaganda program as an invaluable opportunity to cultivate contacts that could lead to more military contracts, they were extremely reliable when it come to promoting the Bush administration's official line—regardless of what they actually believed.
Paul E. Vallely, a Fox News analyst from 2001 to 2007, was, appropriately enough, a retired Army general who had specialized in psychological warfare. In an interview with Barstow, he said, "I saw immediately in 2003 that things were going south." But when he came back from an inspection trip to appear on Fox, he declared, "You can't believe the progress," and he predicted the insurgency would be "down to a few numbers" within months.
After the New York Times itself was revealed as a victim of official government propaganda in the months running up to the Iraq invasion, it ran a lengthy mea culpa, and ultimately forced Judy Miller, the main offender on its reporting staff, to resign. So how did the television networks respond to the news that they had been so successfully manipulated by the Pentagon during the entire course of the war?
CBS and Fox refused to comment at all. NBC said, "We have clear policies in place to assure that the people who appear on our air have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest"—without acknowledging that in this case, those policies had been a total failure. ABC took a similar tack: While conceding that "the network's military consultants were not held to the same ethical rules as its full-time journalists," a spokesman said that "they were expected to keep the network informed about any outside business entanglements. 'We make it clear to them we expect them to keep us closely apprised.'"
Then, of course, none of them gave the Times story any coverage on the evening news.
CNN used retired General James Marks as an analyst at the same time that he was successively seeking a $4.6 billion contract from the Pentagon for McNeil Technologies to provide translators in Iraq. Three years after he started working for the network, CNN said it finally realized "the extent of his dealings," and ended its relationship with him.
Once upon a time, long before Britney Spears was born, every serious news outlets would have felt compelled to follow up on such a huge story on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. No more. There was no mention of it on NBC's Meet the Press, CBS's Face the Nation, or ABC's This Week, although Howie Kurtz did mention it on Reliable Sources on CNN. Kurtz also followed up with a decent 900-word piece in the Washington Post on Monday.
NPR's Neal Conan led a lengthy discussion on Talk of the Nation—in which Harper's Washington editor Ken Silverstein actually advanced the story by pointing out that the program described by the Times was just one part of an even larger Surrogates Program, which included outreach to bloggers, think tanks, and new media.
Practically everyone else ignored the story, until Judy Woodruff moderated a discussion on NewsHour on Thursday between John Stauber, of the Center for Media and Democracy, and Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News Pentagon correspondent who teaches journalism at Boston University.
As usual, Glenn Greenwald did the most thorough job of covering the story in the blogosphere. He also had the pithiest summary of the problem: "Media organizations simply ignore—collectively blackout—any stories that expose major corruption in their news reporting."