Darts & Laurels

A Dart to the television news industry

Dart to the television news industry, for a shameful nonresponse to serious questions about their vetting of analysts hired to comment on the invasion of Iraq and other military matters.

On April 20, The New York Times published David Barstow’s eye-opening investigation into a Defense Department program designed to influence the influencers. In 2002-2003, as the Bush administration made its case against Iraq, the Pentagon rounded up more than seventy-five retired military officials who were already on retainer with various broadcast media outlets to provide military commentary and analysis. Internally, Pentagon staff officials referred to the analysts as “surrogates” and “message-force multipliers,” and provided them with briefings, talking points, and gratis tours of Iraq and Guantánamo. The analysts got special access to senior officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That access seems key: Barstow reported that a majority of analysts participating in the program had ties to defense contractors, who could presumably benefit from rubbing shoulders up top. One general admitted to Barstow that, desperate to preserve his Pentagon perks, he had trimmed his public criticism. Others said they worried the Pentagon would show them the door if they strayed too far from the administration line; indeed, Barstow describes one case where an analyst was booted from the group after being too harsh on air.

The piece was built on the back of a laudable two-year, Freedom of Information Act battle. The Times and its counsel dragged out thousands of pages of Pentagon transcripts, e-mails, and memos describing the program, but only after months of delays and circular excuses. As public editor Clark Hoyt wrote in a column describing the struggle, full cooperation came only after the paper persisted and a judge threatened to bring Pentagon officials into his court to explain “why they shouldn’t be held in contempt.”

Barstow’s eight-thousand-word investigation suggests that some news operations did not (or did not care to) adequately vet their analysts, disclose links to defense contractors, or ask tough questions about the secret briefing program. While his case against the networks was somewhat circumstantial, as The Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar pointed out, it still presented, at the very least, significant questions about the appearance of conflicts of interest. And it called for a serious, open response, and, where appropriate, explanations and apologies to viewers.

Yet not one of the nightly commercial newscasts mentioned the story or offered an on-air explanation to its viewers. Reliable Sources, CNN’s Sunday morning media show, hosted a late-breaking panel the morning Barstow’s article appeared. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann briefly mentioned it. Elsewhere, the silence has been conspicuous.

Given the lack of cooperation some of the news operations gave Barstow in reporting his piece, the weak-kneed response is hardly surprising. Fox News, whose analysts made up the biggest chunk of the Pentagon program, tersely refused to participate in the Times story, and failed to return CJR’s calls seeking comment. CBS also turned down Barstow’s request to comment on its vetting procedures, and failed to respond to CJR’s oral and written requests for comment. NBCand MSNBC jointly rebuffed an interview request, providing instead a statement attacking the Times piece and insisting that they had full confidence in their analysts despite any “personal commitments—past and present.”

ABC and CNN participated in Barstow’s story, and also agreed to speak with CJR. “I’m sure there will be some instance where I might feel differently, but I work at a news organization. We ask questions for a living. I feel it is incumbent upon us to answer questions when they are asked,” said ABC spokesman Jeff Schneider, the only network employee to be quoted in Barstow’s piece. (However, he declined to say whether ABC had done a comprehensive review of its past consultants in the wake of Barstow’s piece.) CNN’s Christa Robinson told CJR that in the wake of the story, the network reviewed the financial disclosures required of its current consultants.

Laurel to National Public Radio, whose actions in the wake of the Times report demonstrate a model of accountability. “I remember seeing that story and saying, ‘I’d better read deep into the jump on this one,’ ” says Brian Duffy, managing editor of NPR News. Shortly after Barstow’s article ran, NPR managers met to review the operation’s vetting, consultant, and disclosure policies, and within two days, issued new guidelines that encourage bookers and reporters to make use of in-house library staff when researching guests, and that require tighter financial disclosure contracts from paid consultants. Alicia Shepard, NPR’s ombudsman, investigated and wrote about the analysts and the new policies on her blog. She suggested, among other things, that NPR attach a disclosure to archived appearances by a defense contractor who took part in the Pentagon program while serving as a paid NPR analyst—a suggestion NPR says it plans to enact. The issue was covered on no fewer than three NPR programs, including a full hour on Talk of the Nation, where Duffy himself took questions from the show’s host.

That was quite a different tack from the hunker-down-until-the-storm-blows-over strategy deployed elsewhere, an approach that seems breathtakingly cynical and short-sighted in light of all we now know about how the Iraq war was sold.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.