I was hoping to write about the fallout from the NYT's Saturday story regarding the media's use of Pentagon-controlled "independent" military analysts, but there hasn't really been any fallout at all. Despite being accused by the NYT in a very lengthy, well-documented expose of misleadingly feeding government propaganda to their viewers and readers, virtually all media outlets continue their steadfast refusal to address or even acknowledge the story. How can "news" organizations refuse to address -- just completely ignore -- accusations which fundamentally indict their behavior as "journalists"?
As I noted on Sunday, the most striking part of the roughly-7000-word article was that several of the most guilty news outlets -- CBS, NBC and Fox -- just outright refused to answer the NYT's questions about their use of military analysts, what they knew about their analysts' dealings with the Pentagon and the defense industry, and what procedures they use (then and now) to ensure that they don't broadcast government propaganda disguised as independent analysis. Identically, other news organizations not explicitly mentioned by the NYT article but which used some of the tainted sources (such as The Washington Post) have similarly failed to address their role in disseminating this Pentagon-controlled propaganda.
Media organizations simply ignore -- collectively blackout -- any stories that expose major corruption in their news reporting, as evidenced by the fact that no major network or cable news programs have ever meaningfully examined the fundamental failures of the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. As Bill Moyers noted at the beginning of his truly superb documentary on the media-government collaboration concerning the invasion: "The story of how the media bought what the White House was selling has not been told in depth on television." Thus, one of the most significant political stories of this generation -- what Moyers described as "our press largely surrender[ing] its independence and skepticism to join with our Government in marching to war" -- has simply been rendered invisible by our largest media outlets. That scandal just does not exist, particularly on television.
And now we have what is by all metrics a huge new story regarding more fundamental media failures (at best), and they collectively invoke the Kremlin-like methods of Dick Cheney -- they refuse to comment, refuse to reveal even the most basic facts about what they did, and do everything possible to hide behind the wall of secrecy they maintain. They don't even feel the slightest bit obligated to say whether they have any procedures to prevent manipulation of this sort in the future. And those classic information-suppressing tactics are all being invoked by news organizations -- which claim to be devoted to disclosing, not concealing, scandals, corruption and facts about how our political institutions function.
One of the only media organs to respond to Barstow's inquiries was CNN, which used several of the suspect, Pentagon-connected military analysts in their war coverage. To its credit, CNN acknowledged that, at least in the case of one analyst it used (Gen. Marks), it knew that he was working for a defense contractor at the time but "did not ask Mr. Marks the follow-up questions (they) should have." In general, though, CNN denied being aware of the various conflicts which the NYT article detailed.
But as I noted the other day, questions about the independence of these military analysts were obvious and, well prior to the Barstow article, were raised in several venues, including the NYT itself. It just wasn't the case that these media organizations, until last Saturday, were unaware of the serious problems with using these sources. These outlets, including CNN, were well aware of these problems and simply decided that they were irrelevant. Indeed, in CNN's case, contrary to the gist of its denials to the NYT, it actually seemed to be a source of pride that the military analysts they were using were explicitly approved of by the Bush administration.
Long-time journalist Norman Solomon produced a 2007 documentary detailing the historical use of propaganda by the government and media to generate American support for all of the numerous wars we've started over the years. Entitled War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, the documentary was narrated by Sean Penn, and included this exchange on the problematic aspects of using retired generals as war commentators (.pdf; h/t Scott Horton via email):
That's the head of CNN admitting -- proudly -- that the military analysts they used to tell their viewers about the war were ones pre-approved, enthusiastically, by the Pentagon -- approval which Jordan said was "important." CNN may not have known about the specific business interests these analysts had -- mostly because they did not want to know and thus didn't ask -- but they plainly knew, by their own admission, that the war analysts they were using were ones that the Pentagon told them to use. It's hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of how dependent on the Government our news organizations are than a confession by CNN's chief that they were eager to have their on-air war commentators approved by top Bush officials.
One of the very few mentions in the establishment press of any of these matters was at the very end of Howard Kurtz's CNN media show on Sunday, where Kurtz largely (though not entirely) downplayed its significance, assigned blame to the individual military sources rather than to his media bosses, and asserted that these matters were unknown to media outlets at the time (Kurtz, to his credit, also summarized the key aspects of the story in his Post column yesterday). On his television show, Kurtz said:
In a lengthy investigation published this morning, "The New York Times" reveals that military analysts, that parade of retired generals and colonels you see on the screen, have been working in far greater cooperation with the Pentagon than anyone knew. They met repeatedly with Donald Rumsfeld, received dozens of briefings, were flown to places like Guantanamo Bay, and often reflected the military's viewpoint in their commentary.
All of that was anything but unknown. As I noted on Saturday, the NYT itself noted back in 2003 that these military analysts almost invariably spewed the pro-Bush line in their commentary and also that "some receive occasional briefings from the Pentagon." Moreover, Kurtz's then-boss at CNN, Eason Jordan, admitted that it wasn't only the Generals consulting with the Pentagon about what to tell viewers, but CNN itself was also essentially doing that by only putting on the air military analysts who had the Pentagon's explicit approval.
Whatever one's views are on the media's proper role and its obligations to its viewers and readers (if any), this is a major story by any measure. These media outlets were either duped by the Bush administration and their own sources into feeding government war propaganda to their audience, or were knowingly complicit in doing that.
The fact that they simply refuse to account for their behavior -- hiding behind "no comment" walls of obfuscation or issuing cursory, empty statements -- demonstrates rather conclusively that they are in the business of doing everything except revealing relevant news to their audience. It's really the height of hubris, and unmistakable proof of their core corruption, that not even a front-page, lengthy NYT expose can cause them to address their central, ongoing role in uncritically disseminating government propaganda about the weightiest of matters.
UPDATE: One of the many long-time superb commenters at this blog -- DCLaw1 -- has just begun his own blog, and his maiden post concerns the NYT story and what it reflects about the true character -- and inherent limitations -- of our modern establishment journalist class. If his blog is even half as insightful and well-written as his comments have been, the blog will be well worth adding to your list of daily reads.
At The Nation, Ari Melber also writes about the NYT story and highlights the unstated converse to the NYT's revelation that all of our leading media outlets relied upon pro-government military analysts: "So what does it take to disqualify a former general from on-air analysis? Criticizing President Bush." As Melber suggests, at exactly the same time that these outlets were shoving pro-government and pro-war propaganda sources down the throats of their audience, they were cleansing themselves of anti-war viewpoints or other sources deeemed too critical of the Government.