Major revelation: U.S. media deceitfully disseminates government propaganda

The New York Times in 2003 raised questions about the objectivity of retired generals. That didn't stop anyone -- including the Times -- from relying on them for "objective" commentary on the war.

Published April 20, 2008 12:14PM (EDT)

(updated below)

This morning's "blockbuster" New York Times article by David Barstow, documenting the Pentagon and U.S. media's joint use of pre-programmed "military analysts" who posed as objective experts while touting the Government line and having extensive business interests in promoting those views, is very well-documented and well-reported. And credit to the NYT for having sued to compel disclosure of the documents on which the article is based. There are significant elements of the story that exemplify excellent investigative journalism.

At the same time, though, in light of questions on this very topic raised even by the NYT back in 2003, it is difficult to take the article's underlying points seriously as though they are some kind of new revelation. And ultimately, to the extent there are new revelations here, they are a far greater indictment of our leading news organizations than the government officials on whom it focuses.

In 2002 and 2003, when Americans were relentlessly subjected to their commentary, news organizations were hardly unaware that these retired generals were mindlessly reciting the administration line on the war and related matters. To the contrary, that's precisely why our news organizations -- which themselves were devoted to selling the war both before and after the invasion by relentlessly featuring pro-war sources and all but excluding anti-war ones -- turned to them in the first place. To its credit, the article acknowledges that "at least nine" of the Pentagon's trained military analysts wrote Op-Eds for the NYT itself, but many of those same sources were also repeatedly quoted -- and still are routinely quoted -- in all sorts of NYT news articles on Iraq and other "War on Terrorism" issues, something the article fails to note.

What the article also does not disclose, but should have, is that the NYT itself already published, back on March 25, 2003, right after the invasion of Iraq, an article by John Cushman raising the thorny questions posed by the media's extensive reliance on retired generals as "military analysts":

Old soldiers, it turns out, don't just fade away not when a war is being carried live on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and the broadcast networks. Instead, a whole constellation of retired one-, two-, three- and four-star generals -- including many who led the recent wars in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Persian Gulf -- can be seen night and day across the television firmament, navigation aids for viewers lost in a narrative that can be foggier than war itself. . . .

But the generals' performances raise some questions, including how much they really know and whether they are disclosing more than they should. Some receive occasional briefings from the Pentagon, but like most reporters, they stay current by checking with their friends in the military and studying all the public information they can gather.

On the other hand, their evident sympathies with the current commanders, not to mention their respect for the military and immersion in its doctrines,sometimes seem to immunize them to the self-imposed skepticism of the news organizations that now employ them.

Rarely, unless pressed, do the generals bluntly criticize the conduct of the war, a detailed review of their recent remarks discloses. Instead, they tend gravely to point out the timeless risks of combat.

That 2003 article, at the very beginning, highlighted the obvious conflicts raised by this morning's article, as it quoted Gen. Greg Newbold on ABC News as praising the invasion as follows: "If things haven't gone exactly according to script, they've gone according to plan," even though Newbold himself "until late last year [] was helping to draw up those plans as the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff."

In fact, that 2003 article noted that while Wesley Clark had said on CNN that he wished there were more troops used for the invasion, retired Generals were reliably praising the war and the administration's strategies. That article even quoted one of the retired Generals cited in this morning's article as one of those on the Pentagon's list of puppets -- Wayne Downing -- to illustrate the type of pro-government commentary typically spouted by these "military analysts":

More typical was a description by Gen. Wayne A. Downing, a former Army leader of the Special Operations Command and a gulf war commander in 1991, of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the Iraq war's overall regional commander. "Tommy started off as an enlisted helicopter door gunner in Vietnam," General Downing said, rattling off the story of his old comrade's career as if by rote. "He's not going to go down there and mess with his people. Not only is Tommy comfortable and well liked by his superiors, which a lot of people are, but Tommy hasn't made his money by looking up. He's made his money by looking down."

That 2003 article didn't seem to give any of these news outlets -- including the NYT itself -- the slightest pause about continuing to use these sources as "objective" analysts. It's true that the 2003 article did not raise the added conflict that many military analysts were simultaneously working for corporations in the defense industry which stood to profit from the war policies they were praising, but is that really news to anyone? It's long been clear and obvious that these retired generals were used by the U.S. media to provide an authoritative and artificially objective stamp of approval to the Bush administration's positions. In his book Lapdogs, Eric Boehlert cited numerous examples of that, including:

And for viewers that night who didn't get a strong enough sense of just how obediently in-step the press corps was with the White House, there was the televised post-press conference analysis. On MSNBC, for instance, "Hardball's" Chris Matthews hosted a full hour of discussion. In order to get a wide array of opinion, he invited a pro-war Republican senator (Saxby Chambliss, from Georgia), a pro-war former Secretary of State (Lawrence Eagleburger), a pro-war retired Army general (Montgomery Meigs), pro-war retired Air Force general (Buster Glosson), a pro-war Republican pollster (Frank Luntz), as well as, for the sake of balance, somebody who, twenty-five years earlier, once worked in Jimmy Carter's White House (Pat Caddell).

Meigs was one of the retired Generals on whom the NYT article this morning focused (and as a frequent and highly respected guest on MSNBC, here's the type of propagandizing commentary he routinely spewed, consistent with what the Sainted David Petraeus was doing at the same time). Doing whatever they could to promote the Government line on the "War on Terrorism" was a central function of our propagandizing press corps; the use of allegedly objective retired generals was a critical instrument in their arsenal; and the NYT article this morning, while commendably disclosing new evidence to prove that, does not reveal anything not previously known.

The most incredible aspect of the NYT story is that most of the news organizations which deceived their readers and viewers by using these "objective" analysts -- CBS, NBC, Fox -- simply refused to comment on what they knew about any of this or what their procedures are for safeguarding against it. Just ponder what that says about these organizations -- there is a major expose in the NYT documenting that these news outlets misleadingly shoveled government propaganda down the throats of their viewers on matters of war and terrorism and they don't feel the least bit obliged to answer for what they did or knew about any of it. (And it doesn't appear that Barstow even asked the NYT itself to comment about what they knew or what their procedures were when using these sources). CNN did answer by claiming they were unaware of these relationships and rely on their sources to disclose them.

The single most significant factor in American political culture is the incestuous, extensive overlap between our media institutions and government officials. The former is a dependent appendage of the latter far more than they are anything else. This article discloses some new details and proof of how that toxic process functions, but the fact that our major news organizations -- with some exceptions -- largely serve as government propaganda outlets is not news. It's the central fact of American political life, and the NYT itself -- along with every other news organization -- more than five years ago was obviously aware of this specific problem but not particularly concerned about it.

* * * * *

I'll be at Daily Kos today at 12:30 p.m. EST for an online discussion of Great American Hypocrites (the discussion can be read here). I was at the FDL Book Salon yesterday, which can be read here.

UPDATE: Having just watched more Sunday news shows than a human being should ever have to endure, it is striking -- though unsurprising -- that not a single one saw fit to mention this NYT story demonstrating that these news programs all fed government propaganda to their viewers. That they refuse to comment on this story and will now black it out says as much about what they really are, and what they really do, as the NYT story itself does.

Relatedly, a commenter objects to this post because he says it's "no time to out-blasé each other." He makes a good point -- that the significance of this article (and the opportunity it presents) shouldn't be dismissed on the ground that its central points are already known and that it presents nothing new. In one sense, that's true, but there is nonetheless something misleading about media outlets pretending as though they just discovered this. I responded to his objection here.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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