On the question of whether the Pentagon maintained an illegal covert domestic propaganda program -- and on the broader question of whether the American media's political coverage is largely shaped and controlled by the U.S. Government -- I don't believe it's possible to obtain more conclusive evidence than this:
These are excepts from a memorandum sent on January 14, 2005 -- just before President Bush was to be inaugurated for his second term -- from Capt. Roxie T. Merritt, the Director of DoD Press Operations, to several top Pentagon officials, including Larry Di Rita, the top aide to Donald Rumsfeld (pp. 7815-7816 (.pdf)). It reports on Merritt's conclusions and proposals in the wake of a Pentagon-organized trip to Iraq for their military analysts:
One of the most interesting things coming from this trip to Iraq with the media analysts has been learning how their jobs have been undergoing a metamorphosis. There are several reasons behind the morph . . . with an all voluntary military, no one in the media has current military background. Additionally we have been doing a good job of keeping these guys informed so they have ready answers when the networks come calling.
The key issue here is that more and more, media analysts are having a greater impact on the television media network coverage of military issues. They have now become the go to guys not only for breaking stories, but they influence the views on issues. They also have a huge amount of influence on what stories the network decides to cover proactively with regard to the military. . . .
1.) I recommend we develop a core group from within our media analyst list of those that we can count on to carry our water. They become part of a "hot list" of those that we immediately make calls to or put on an email distro list before we contact or respond to media on hot issues. We can also do more proactive engagement with this list and give them tips on what stories to focus on and give them heads up on issues as they are developing. By providing them with key and valuable information, they become the key go to guys for the networks and it begins to weed out the less reliably friendly analysts by the networks themselves . . . .
3.) Media ops and outreach can work on a plan to maximize use of the analysts and figure out a system by which we keep our most reliably friendly analysts plugged in on everything from crisis response to future plans. This trusted core group will be more than willing to work closely with us because we are their bread and butter and the more they know, the more valuable they are to the networks. . . .
5.) As evidenced by this analyst trip to Iraq, the synergy of outreach shops and media ops working together on these types of projects is enormous and effective. Will continue to exam (sic) ways to improve processes.
This is a thoughtful note. . . I think it makes a lot of sense to do as you suggest and I guess I thought we were already doing a lot of this in terms of quick contact, etc. . . We ought to be doing this, though, and we should not make the list too small . . . .
So the Pentagon would maintain a team of "military analysts" who reliably "carry their water" -- yet who were presented as independent analysts by the television and cable networks. By feeding only those pro-Government sources key information and giving them access -- even before responding to the press -- only those handpicked analysts would be valuable to the networks, and that, in turn, would ensure that only pro-Government sources were heard from. Meanwhile, the "less reliably friendly" ones -- frozen out by the Pentagon -- would be "weeded out" by the networks. The pro-Government military analysts would do what they were told because the Pentagon was "their bread and butter." These Pentagon-controlled analysts were used by the networks not only to comment on military matters -- and to do so almost always unchallenged -- but also even to shape and mold the networks' coverage choices.
Even a casual review of the DoD's documents leaves no doubt that this is exactly how the program worked. The military analysts most commonly used by MSNBC, CNN, Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC routinely received instructions about what to say in their appearances from the Pentagon. As but one extreme though illustrative example, Dan Senor -- Fox News analyst and husband of CNN's Campbell Brown -- would literally ask Di Rita before his television appearances what he should say (7900, 7920-21), and submitted articles to him, such as one he wrote for The Weekly Standard about how great the war effort was going, and Di Rita would give him editing directions, which he obediently followed.
Among the most active analysts in this program were all three of the most commonly used MSNBC commentators -- Gen. Montgomery Meigs, Gen. Wayne Downing, and Col. Ken Allard. They were frequently summoned by Chris Matthews and (in the case of Downing) by Brian Williams as NBC's resident experts. Matthews referred to them as "HARDBALL's war council" on January 17, 2005, when he had all three of them on together to bash The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh for reporting that the Pentagon was preparing attack plans against Iran -- an article that, like most Hersh articles, infuriated Di Rita and other DoD officials. The next day, Allard proudly wrote to Di Rita:
As you may have seen on MSNBC, I attributed a lot of what [Hersh] said to disgruntled CIA employees who simply should be taken out and shot.
In light of all of this, it is very hard to dispute the excited analysis of an unnamed Lt. Col when, in a March 4, 2005 email to various Pentagon officials (7751), he described the military analyst program as producing a "big payback." He then went further:
There are about 50 retired military analysts that are part of this group. . . . these are the folks that end up on FOX, CNN, etc. interpreting military happenings. These calls are conducted frequently and offer HUGE payback. . . . these end up being the people who carry the mail on talk shows.
On the Los Angeles Times blog a couple of weeks ago, Scott Collins opined that the principal reason the military analyst story had "no legs" (meaning that the original NYT story received so little subsequent coverage in the establishment media) is this:
Many Americans confronted with stories of media manipulation by government officials aren't, at this point, shocked and awed. Instead they've come to expect it. Increasingly, they consider the media simply a mouthpiece for whoever has the most power. You don't have to tell John Q. Public that the fix is in; he takes it for granted. . . .
So, many Americans, confronted with evidence that TV's talking heads are taking orders not just from government officials but also military-contractor clients, can be excused for not being all that surprised.
Clearly, the principal reason the story has received virtually no coverage on the television networks is because the story reflects so poorly on them. But as to his primary point, I don't believe Collins is right. The public has long been inculcated with the notion that we have a "liberal media" that opposes and undermines whatever Republicans do, etc. etc. Yet here is mountains of evidence as conclusive as can be as to how the Government/media cartel actually functions -- media outlets and their corporate parents rely on the Government for all sorts of favors and access and, in return, do nothing to displease them. To the contrary, the Bush administration itself here is proudly touting its ability to control media content and ensure the presence only of pro-Government voices with regard to war and military matters.
It's true that there are plenty of people who understand the core government-amplifying function of the establishment media, but there are also plenty of people -- likely far more -- who don't. That's precisely why the television networks are so eager to suppress and conceal these revelations and the endlessly illuminating evidence which supports them.
UPDATE: Each time I've written about this story, someone -- including, once, one of the producers of the show -- writes to point out that PBS' News Hour did broadcast a segment a couple of weeks ago examining the issues underlying the scandal. Indeed they did, and it was quite a good discussion. The transcript for that show can be read, and the show itself viewed, here.
On a different note, from the "for-what-it's-worth" department, Harry Reid was at FDL's Book Salon today to promote his new book, and this was the answer he gave when someone asked about whether he was planning to hold hearings (h/t Lish, who asked the question):
The answer is yes. I have personally spoken to Chairman Levin and he is tremendously concerned as I. And we are proceeding accordingly.
What is worth noting is that that's the first time Senate leadership has said they intend to hold hearings. In its recent article on the media's "deafening silence" over this story, The Politico said that if there were Congressional hearings held, then "the networks would be hard-pressed to continue their de facto blackout." I guess we'll find out if that's true.