"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Politics News
(updated below – Update II [Wed: response from NBC] – Update III [Wed.])
In 2009, The New York Times‘ David Barstow won the Pulitzer Prize for his two-part series on the use by television networks of retired Generals posing as objective “analysts” at exactly the same time they were participating — unbeknownst to viewers — in a Pentagon propaganda program. Many were also plagued by undisclosed conflicts of interest whereby they had financial stakes in many of the policies they were pushing on-air. One of the prime offenders was Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who was not only a member of the Pentagon’s propaganda program, but also, according to Barstow’s second stand-alone article, had his own “Military-Industrial-Media Complex,” deeply invested in many of the very war policies he pushed and advocated while posing as an NBC “analyst”:
Through seven years of war an exclusive club has quietly flourished at the intersection of network news and wartime commerce. Its members, mostly retired generals, have had a foot in both camps as influential network military analysts and defense industry rainmakers. It is a deeply opaque world, a place of privileged access to senior government officials, where war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests and network executives are sometimes oblivious to possible conflicts of interest.
Few illustrate the submerged complexities of this world better than Barry McCaffrey. . . . General McCaffrey has immersed himself in businesses that have grown with the fight against terrorism. . . .
Many retired officers hold a perch in the world of military contracting, but General McCaffrey is among a select few who also command platforms in the news media and as government advisers on military matters. These overlapping roles offer them an array of opportunities to advance policy goals as well as business objectives. But with their business ties left undisclosed, it can be difficult for policy makers and the public to fully understand their interests.
On NBC and in other public forums, General McCaffrey has consistently advocated wartime policies and spending priorities that are in line with his corporate interests. But those interests are not described to NBC’s viewers. He is held out as a dispassionate expert, not someone who helps companies win contracts related to the wars he discusses on television.
Despite Barstow’s Pulitzer, neither Brian Williams nor anyone else at NBC News ever mentioned any of these groundbreaking stories to their viewers (even as Williams reported on other Pulitzer awards that year); the controversy over the Pentagon propaganda program was simply suppressed. And NBC continued to feature those same ex-Generals as “analysts” — including McCaffrey — as though the whole thing never happened.
Apparently, not only does NBC continue to present McCaffrey to its viewers as some sort of objective analyst, but NBC News executives use him as some kind of private consultant and briefer on the news. On January 12, 2012, McCaffrey presented a seminar to roughly 20 NBC executives and producers — including NBC News President Steve Capus — entitled “Iran, Nukes & Oil: The Gulf Confrontation.” We’ve obtained the Power Point document McCaffrey prepared and distributed for his presentation, and in it, he all but predicts war with Iran within the next 90 days: one that is likely to be started by them. The first page of the breathlessly hawkish document is entitled “Iran & the Gulf: Creeping Toward War,” and the first sentence excitedly proclaims (click to enlarge):
Most of the report emphasizes the likelihood that Iran — not the U.S. — will act aggressively and trigger a war:
He adds: “We should not view the Iranian rhetoric as empty threats. They are likely to further escalate. There is great opportunity for miscalculation on their part. . . . They will not under any circumstances actually be deterred from going nuclear. They will achieve initial nuclear capability within 36 months.” About a war with Iran, he says: “Israel would welcome such a confrontation. They have an existential threat to their survival looming in their very near future.” Among his conclusions:
The last page of his presentation pointedly notes what he called “The American People: A Crisis of Confidence in Institutions.” The accompanying chart showed that 78% of Americans have faith in the military — by far the most admired institution in America — but near the bottom was “television news,” with 28%.
While McCaffrey’s office failed to return several calls seeking comment — I was particularly interested to know whether any of his ample consulting clients would benefit from a war with Iran — Lauren Kapp, an NBC News spokeswoman, confirmed the existence of this meeting. She said: “We regularly host editorial board meetings with our editorial board staff,” and besides McCaffrey: “we have heard from top ranking current and former US Government officials” (she also says that they once heard from an Iranian ambassador to the U.N.). She added:
We are exhaustive in our conversation with people from various perspectives and expertise when we over a story of this magnitude. And we are confident in the level and breadth of the conversations we are having with representatives from all viewpoints.Council for foreign relations, etc….
Not just current and former U.S. government officials and Generals, but also members of the “Council for foreign relations”: the diversity of viewpoints is staggering.
It is interesting to see the sources on whom NBC News executives rely to develop their understanding of the world, and it’s even more interesting to learn what they’re being told about that. The reason Barstow won a Pulitzer Prize for his two stories is because it revealed the merger between the the American media and the military establishment, many of whose members have all sorts of vested interests in Endless War. This meeting and document provides a nice glimpse for how this process continues to function.
UPDATE: Among the many attributes one might attribute to McCaffrey and his report, incoherence is near the top of the list. He does, as I noted, make statements suggesting imminent military conflict, including his claim that “there is a significant probability of Iranian escalation in the coming 90 days” and “they are likely to further escalate,” along with the title of his first page: “Creeping toward war.” But as several emailers point out, he also tacks onto the end of the discussion on the first page the assessment of “15% probability of major military action in the coming 90 days.” The document is devoted to making military conflict appear quite likely, though he places a relatively low percentage on “major military action in the coming 90 days.”
McCaffrey also purports to compare the military capabilities of Iran and Israel, though Juan Cole this morning has much more illuminating data in that regard.
UPDATE II: The Huffington Post has an article with this headline — “NBC News Fires Back At Glenn Greenwald’s McCaffrey Report” — which publishes the full statement issued by NBC in response to this story. Let’s examine it piece by piece, beginning with the first line:
The Salon piece is a woefully inaccurate, ignorant, insulting depiction of our editorial process.
That’s quite an ambitious set of accusations to prove. I’m looking forward to reading about all of the “woefully inaccurate” and “ignorant” aspects of my article (I’ll agree with the adjective “insulting,” though that’s simply the by-product of my describing NBC’s conduct). I will note that after a link to this article was sent by Salon to NBC spokesperson Lauren Kapp, she replied by email and complained about only one claimed inaccuracy: the inconsequential inclusion of the word “board” in her quote, which was immediately corrected (“She said: ‘We regularly host editorial board meetings with our editorial board staff’”). If the piece were rife with substantive inaccuracies, one would have expected her to identify them, or at least one; but perhaps they’re in NBC’s newest response. It continues:
Mr. Greenwald has stumbled upon a defining journalistic and organizational tool that differentiates us as a global news organization: our longstanding tradition of editorial board meetings with leading analysts and news makers. He chose to write the piece while not personally having one conversation with anyone from this news organization, so to critique how we do our reporting is quite ironic.
The claim that I did not “personally have one conversation” with anyone from NBC is disingenuous in the extreme. I worked on the reporting for this article with my Salon colleague Jefferson Morley. In addition to doing the work to write this, I took responsibility to try to get comment from Gen. McCaffrey’s office, while Jeff worked on getting comment from NBC. All of his communications with NBC were in the form of emails between him and Kapp, all of which were sent to me as they took place. I worked with him on the follow-up questions, and I quoted or otherwise included the entirety of Kapp’s responses to Jeff’s questions in this article. NBC knows all of this yet tries to imply, deceitfully, that I did not get its input in writing this. Then:
We listen to and value the views of retired Four-Star General Barry McCaffrey. He presented his thoughts on Iran in a recent editorial board meeting at NBC News. As have several senior officials from countries throughout the Middle East that represent vastly different world views. In similar sessions, we have received the views of current and former US government officials. We have been afforded the views of Israeli and other foreign governmental officials. We have heard from non-governmental organizations, respected journalists and opinion leaders.
NBC “listens to and values the views of” Gen. McCaffrey despite his ample conflicts of interest and other undisclosed commercial activities which David Barstow won a Pulitzer Prize for documenting, and in this case, those views are absurdly alarmist and fear-mongering. Without identifying from whom else they heard, it’s impossible to assess the validity of NBC’s claim that they invite to their editorial meetings those with “vastly different world views” when it comes to Iran, but suffice to say, both Kapp’s original response (which I quoted in the original article) and this latest one from NBC make clear that it is composed largely of government and military officials and the supporting Foreign Policy Community venues which exist to support them. That’s why it’s utterly unsurprising that NBC has produced junk propagandistic war-drum-beating like this about the Iranian Threat.
Note that NBC does not claim that any part of my discussion of its involvement in the Pentagon propaganda program — including the suppression by Brian Williams and the rest of its news division of all discussion of that huge story — is inaccurate. Nor does it dispute any of the facts I conveyed about McCaffrey. Indeed, despite its opening flurry of accusations, NBC does not even purport to identify a single inaccuracy in any thing I reported. Replies like this one — that are long on screeching invective and short on any identified inaccuracies — do more to bolster the validity of the original article than anything else could.
UPDATE III: TPM has a good article on this matter which emphasizes why it is so imperative to aggressively scrutinize media behavior on Iran.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)