Above the Fold: The Pentagon Capers

The mainstream media are silent on the Pentagon’s repudiation of its own report

This week the Pentagon took the highly unusual step of withdrawing a report issued by its inspector general one week before President George W. Bush left office last January.  The report was an attack on the superb New York Times stories, written by David Barstow, the first about how the Pentagon had recruited an army of seventy-five retired military-officer talking heads to appear as “objective experts” on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC—men who actually worked with “more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants.” Barstow’s second story, published six months after the first one, focused on “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex”—owned and operated by retired General Barry McCaffrey.

The Pentagon’s original report (as described in The Washington Post last January) said its investigation concluded that the program—which gave briefings to retired military officers who served as news commentators on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—did not violate internal policies or regulations, nor did those analysts use their access to benefit their business interests.

But this week Donald M. Horstman, the Pentagon’s deputy inspector general for policy and oversight, announced,

We are withdrawing the subject report. Shortly after publishing the report on January 14, 2009, we became aware of inaccuracies in the data concerning retired military analyst (RMA) relationships with Defense contractors that appeared in Appendix K and elsewhere in the report. The discovery of those inaccuracies caused us to conduct an independent internal review of the report and its supporting documentation. The internal review concluded that the report did not meet accepted quality standards for an Inspector General work product.

This was sweet vindication for Barstow—not to mention for the Pulitzer Prize jury, which honored Barstow’s work with one of  journalism’s most prestigious prizes last month.

You might think that an extremely rare action by the Pentagon, and one that vindicated a newly-awarded Pulitzer, would be the kind of thing other newspapers would rush to report. But as far as FCP can tell, the only paper that has run a story so far about this in its print edition is The New York Times.

The Washington Post did mention the Pentagon’s action on its Web site, but according to Media Matters, even though the Post printed a story about the Pentagon’s report in January, it hasn’t bothered to mention that the same Pentagon has now repudiated that report in the printed paper.  (Previously, Media Matters had reported that the army of analysts identified by Barstow had made an astonishing 4,500 “appearances and quotations” on ABC, ABC News Now, CBS, CBS Radio Network, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, and NPR.)

As FCP noted last month, all of the television networks continued their total silence about this whole controversy, even after Barstow won his Pulitzer. NBC in particular is so sensitive about the charges against its consultant, General McCaffrey, that its president, Steve Capus, told the Society of Professional Journalists that the network would no longer provide anyone for any SPJ function, because the Society had issued a statement supporting Barstow’s stories.

Capus and an NBC spokeswoman did not respond to e-mails yesterday asking whether the network was still boycotting all SPJ events.  However, SPJ president Dave Aeikens told FCP earlier today that NBC special correspondent Tom Brokaw will be appearing soon at an SPJ awards ceremony in Minnesota. After Capus had told him he was severing all ties with SPJ, Aeikens said, he had offered Capus a chance to air NBC’s point of view on the SPJ Web site. Capus, Aeikens said, never responded to that offer.

The unbroken on-air silence of NBC on this matter (Brian Williams once mentioned it in passing on his blog) finally ended this week when the estimable Rachel Maddow of MSNBC invited New York Times columnist Frank Rich to discuss the controversy. It was the first time such a discussion occurred on any NBC network.

As usual, the blogosphere has also done a thorough job of reporting the Pentagon’s repudiation of its own report. The rest of the mainstream media, however, seems content to ignore it.

Update: SPJ spokesman Scott Leadingham points out via e-mail that there are no hard feelings among SPJ jurors toward NBC News. Besides honoring David Barstow with a Sigma Delta Chi Award this year for his Pentagon stories, the Society also gave one to NBC Nightly News for breaking news from Afghanistan. Two of the riveting stories that were honored are here.

NBC spokesperson Allison Gollust acknowledged receipt of FCP’s inquiry about the network’s current attitude toward SPJ, but did not respond to it.

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Charles Kaiser is a former media critic for Newsweek and the author of three books, most recently The Cost of Courage, about one family in the French Resistance.