The ongoing disgrace of NBC News and Brian Williams

Another story from the NYT further exposes the corruption of NBC's reliance on Gen. Barry McCaffrey as an "independent military analyst."

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

(updated below – Update II)

The New York Times‘s David Barstow, whose excellent and aggressive journalism led to the uncovering last April of the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda program involving network “military analysts,” today returns to this topic with another lengthy front-page exposé.  Barstow focuses today on the numerous, undisclosed conflicts of interest of Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who continues to be featured frequently by NBC News as an objective analyst as he opines about war policies in which he has a substantial (and concealed) financial stake.

Some of the key facts which Barstow reports concerning the improper behavior of McCaffrey and NBC News were documented all the way back in April, 2003, in this excellent article from The Nation, which Barstow probably should have credited today.  That article — entitled “TV’s Conflicted Experts” — detailed the numerous defense contractors to which McCaffrey had a substantial connection — including Mitretek, Veritas and Integrated Defense Technologies, all featured by Barstow today — and highlighted how the policies and viewpoints McCaffrey was advocating as a “military analyst” on NBC directly benefited those companies.   

Because those conflicts were brought to light by the anti-war Nation, and because that article was published in April, 2003, as the country was drowning in a war-crazed frenzy, NBC was able to blithely dismiss these concerns, unbelievably telling The Nation that its military analysts’ business interests were “not their concern.”  Unsurprisingly, the Nation article generated little attention and controversy. Few people were interested back then in challenging war-praising retired Generals and the networks which were glorifying the invasion.  NBC continued without objection to feature McCaffrey, and the similarly-conflicted retired Gen. Wayne Downing, as objective “military analysts.”

Still, what was — and remains — most incredible about Barstow’s April, 2008 exposé was that, to this day, the networks which featured these highly conflicted “analysts” have never uttered a word about the controversy over the Pentagon’s program, despite the fact that it was the subject of an enormous front-page NYT story; members of Congress accused the Pentagon — rightfully so — of operating a potentially illegal propaganda operation and demanded information directly from the networks; both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spoke out against the Pentagon’s program; and even the Pentagon felt compelled to terminate the program in the wake of the controversy.  None of that merited a mention by any of the networks, despite (more accurately: because of) the fact that their own reporting was so directly implicated by the controversy.

As I documented at length at the time, using the thousands of documents Barstow had obtained, the propaganda that the networks broadcast as a result of this “military analyst” program — about Iraq, Guantanamo and a host of other related issues — was very coordinated and, by design, implanted falsehoods in virtually every aspect of their “reporting”.

The active suppression of this story by the networks — their decision to conceal from their own viewers the fact that, for years, they presented as “independent” analysts individuals who were working in tandem on “message amplification” with the Pentagon and who had significant business interests in their analysis — was so severe, so remarkable, that even establishment defenders such as Howie Kurtz and The Politico emphatically protested the networks’ silence.  Clocks were even created to count the number of days the networks blackballed Barstow’s story — and it currently stands at 223 days, and counting. 

Last April, in the wake of Barstow’s front-page story, I documented at length numerous other facts featured in today’s Barstow article — including the countless times McCaffrey went on NBC News shows to advocate war policies that directly benefited his undisclosed business interests, as well as the completely deceitful way NBC presented McCaffrey as an independent and objective analyst without ever mentioning any of his multiple activities that clearly called into question his objectivity as an “analyst.”

A couple of weeks after Barstow’s story was published in April, I noted that Brian Williams had taken the time on his blog to write about and mock multiple, trivial NYT stories from that week, yet had never once mentioned — either on his network news show or even on his blog — the extremely incriminating story in the NYT about his repeated reliance over the years on retired Generals — such as McCaffrey and Downing — who were active participants in the Pentagon’s propaganda program and who were burdened with all sorts of economic ties that created clear though undisclosed conflicts of interests.

In response, Williams finally addressed Barstow’s story on his blog (but not on his network news broadcast), yet did so only by ignoring all of the specific, substantive issues that were raised, instead offering a patronizing little lecture about how Williams himself had developed what he called “a close friendship” with both McCaffrey and Downing, and could therefore assure us that “these men are passionate patriots” who would never offer anything but the most honest and forthright assessments.  That was the full extent of NBC and Williams’ response to this story.

Not only has NBC and Williams suppressed this story, but — more amazingly still — they continue to feature McCaffrey as an “analyst” on American war policies still without disclosing or even alluding to his participation in the Pentagon program and/or his still-extant business stakes in the policies he’s being asked to assess.  Just this past Thursday night — 3 days ago — Williams featured McCaffrey on his NBC Nightly News program to opine about American policy in Afghanistan, and McCaffrey was identified only as a Retired General and NBC Military Analyst.

Earlier that same day, McCaffrey was on a different NBC News show to opine about our occupation of Iraq.  Williams also featured McCaffrey on September 6 to opine about Iraq, and on September 9, McCaffrey was featured on MSNBC as having just returned from Afghanistan, and was then asked to analyze American policy in both Afghanistan and Iraq while being identified only as an “NBC military analyst.”

All of this took place after the publication of Barstow’s April story on the military analysts program which featured McCaffrey, years after The Nation highlighted McCaffrey’s numerous business conflicts, and after ample documentation — including in this space — of how McCaffrey used his NBC platform repeatedly over the years to advocate pro-war policies that advanced his undisclosed financial interests.  Brian Williams and NBC just ignored all of that.  Indeed, to Bartsow last April, NBC arrogantly “declined to discuss its procedures for hiring and monitoring military analysts,” instead issuing this purposely vague — and obviously false — statement:

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

Even after that statement was issued, they continued to feature McCaffrey as an analyst to speak about exactly the wars in which — as Barstow documents even more conclusively today — he has an overwhelming financial stake.

Just as was true for the media’s own complicity in the Bush administration’s false pre-war claims (which no network television show, to date, has addressed), as well as for the direct involvement of numerous media stars in the Lewis Libby crimes (which they reported on while pretending that they had no involvement), here is yet another case where major media outlets simply suppress stories that severely indict the integrity of their own “journalism.” 

Worse than mere suppression, NBC and Brian Williams have just outright ignored this scandal, continuing to use McCaffrey as an analyst without requiring that he sever — or even disclose — his numerous conflicts, allowing him to continue to use NBC News to propagandize for the military policies from which his affiliated companies benefit.  Now that Barstow has added substantially to the set of incriminating facts, it remains to be seen whether NBC will finally be forced to tell its viewers about what happened with its own involvement in the Pentagon’s program and/or to take corrective action.


UPDATE:  As several commenters observe, and as I’ve noted before, there is an irony to this story:  namely, few companies benefit more from massive military spending and wars than NBC’s own parent company, General Electric.  Still, the GE/NBC relationship is publicly known and, therefore, everyone can decide for themselves how reliable, if at all, NBC’s reporting is on issues that directly affect the company which owns it.  By important contrast, the conflicts of McCaffrey (and other analysts) have been largely undisclosed, thus deceiving viewers when these networks present them as independent analysts of America’s war policies.


UPDATE II:  Matt Yglesias:

Barstow published a piece on this back in April. None of the TV networks addressed the issue he raised in anything resembling a serious manner. And, again, we now have NBC News caught flat-out in the midst of corruption, deceiving their viewers. And NBC News isn’t sorry. They’re not apologizing. They’re not ashamed. Because they’re beyond shame. They never had a reputation for honor, so they don’t even see this sort of thing as damaging.

I really don’t see how any of that can be denied.  Nonetheless, the damage they caused, and continue to cause, has been immense.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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