full court press

Above the Fold: Complex Analysis

Kaiser on NBC News and the military-industrial complex
December 1, 2008

Is there any limit to the shamelessness of NBC News?

That is one of several questions sparked by David Barstow‘s 5,000-word assault against the military-industrial complex in general and “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex” in particular—the one owned and operated by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Barstow’s piece, on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, appeared exactly six months after the same reporter’s previous spectacular effort on this subject, five and a half years after The Nation’s Daniel Benaim, Priyanka Motaparthy, & Vishesh Kumar first disclosed McCaffrey’s very extensive ties to military contractors—and thirty-seven years after CBS News first identified military manipulation of the media in a documentary called The Selling of the Pentagon.

Barstow’s earlier story revealed that 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 work with “more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants.” 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 networks reacted to that Times story with a stunning wall of silence. Neither CBS nor NBC nor ABC has ever mentioned it on any of their evening news broadcasts. (Glenn Greenwald noted yesterday that clocks had been created “to count the number of days the networks blackballed Barstow’s story”; they now stand at “223 days, and counting.”)

In fact, the only time NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams ever dealt with the subject publicly came in a brief mention in his blog, nine days after Barstow’s original piece. In that posting, McCaffrey was one of just two generals who Williams specifically defended, explaining that he had become a close friend of McCaffrey. “I can only account for the men I know best,” wrote Williams, but he was sure that at “no time did our analysts, on my watch or to my knowledge, attempt to push a rosy Pentagon agenda before our viewers.”

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Williams’s defense was mostly based on the fact that McCaffrey had made some sharp attacks on the utterly incompetent way Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had managed the war in Iraq. Since McCaffrey was a Rumsfeld critic, the theory went, he obviously couldn’t be accused of flacking for the Pentagon. (For more about all this, see what I wrote last spring here and here.

But as Barstow explained in yesterday’s piece, even when Rumsfeld was furious at him, McCaffrey remained close to countless other Pentagon officials, including generals who continued to send McCaffrey on numerous trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, “solely for his benefit.” Barstow also documents several times when McCaffrey did present a rosy view of our progress in Iraq—particularly at moments when such statements could directly benefit the numerous military contractors for whom he was working.

And yet, to this day, NBC News has never once disclosed any of McCaffrey’s multiple conflicts of interest on the air—and as recently as last Thursday Williams was still using the retired general on Nightly News to opine about Afghanistan. In one of the lamest in a series of exceptionally lame explanations from the network, NBC News people told Barstow “that the general’s relationships with military contractors are indirectly disclosed through NBC’s Web site, where General McCaffrey’s biography now features a link to his consulting firm’s Web site. That site, they said, lists General McCaffrey’s clients.”

But even that turns out to be false: “While the general’s Web site lists his board memberships, it does not name his clients, nor does it mention Veritas Capital, by one measure the second-largest military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, after KBR.” According to Barstow, Veritas has paid McCaffrey at least $500,000. But NBC has never disclosed his connection to Veritas, either.

It turns out that McCaffrey is the living embodiment of all the worst aspects of entrenched Washington corruption—a man who shares with scores of other retired officers a huge financial interest in having America conduct its wars for as long as possible.

House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank recently announced that he wants to cut the Pentagon’s budget by twenty-five percent—or approximately $150 billion a year. Sadly, because of the entrenched position of McCaffrey and hundreds of others like him, there is almost no chance at all that president-elect Obama will do anything to curb the military-industrial threat about which President Dwight Eisenhower first warned us in his farewell address forty-eight years ago. With the willing complicity of NBC News, that threat just keeps on getting stronger and stronger, every year.

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.