NBC and McCaffrey's coordinated responses to the NYT story

Emails obtained between NBC executives and the retired General further underscore NBC's gross indifference to journalistic ethics.

Published December 1, 2008 5:26PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II)

Following up on yesterday's post regarding NBC News' suppression of the "military analyst" scandal and its ongoing reliance on the deeply conflicted Barry McCaffrey:  I have obtained, from a very trustworthy source, emails sent last week between NBC News executives and McCaffrey (which cc:d Brian Williams), reflecting the extensive collaboration between NBC and McCaffrey to formulate a coordinated response to David Barstow's story.  The emails are re-printed here.  

Rather than honestly investigate the numerous facts which Barstow uncovered about McCaffery's severe conflicts, NBC instead is clearly in self-protective mode, working in tandem with McCaffrey to create justifications for what they have done.  As these emails reflect, both this weekend's story about McCaffrey and the earlier NYT story in April have caused NBC News to expend substantial amounts of time, effort and resources trying to manage the P.R. aspects of this story. 

But remarkably, this "news organization" has still not uttered a peep to its viewers about these stories; has not reported on any of the indisputably newsworthy events surrounding the Pentagon's "military analyst" program; and continues to present McCaffrey to its viewers as an objective source without disclosing any of the multiple connections and interests he has that would lead any reasonable person to question his objectivity.

Perhaps most notable of all is how plainly dishonest the NBC response to Barstow is -- a response which, unsurprisingly (given their coordination) is tracked by the response posted on McCaffrey's website and by his hired P.R. agent, Robert Weiner, who is pasting a defense of McCaffrey in various places on the Internet (including my comment section yesterday) without identifying himself as such.  As their only defense to these accusations, both NBC and McCaffrey are repeatedly emphasizing that McCaffrey criticized the Bush administration and Donald Rumsfeld's prosecution of the Iraq War, as though that proves that McCaffrey's NBC commentary was independent and honest and not influenced by his numerous business connections to defense contractors.

Both NBC and McCaffrey are either incapable of understanding, or are deliberately ignoring, the central point:  in those instances where McCaffrey criticized Rumsfeld for his war strategy, it was to criticize him for spending insufficient amounts of money on the war, or for refusing to pursue strategies that would have directly benefited the numerous companies with which McCaffrey is associated

McCaffrey's criticism of Bush's war management doesn't disprove accusations that he was deeply conflicted when appearing as an NBC "analyst"; to the contrary, the criticisms he voiced constitute some of the most compelling evidence proving that McCaffrey should never have been on NBC -- and still should not be.  As I documented back in late April about McCaffrey's supposed status as a "war critic":

It's true, as [Brian] Williams points out as though it is exculpatory, that -- like Bill Kristol and plenty of other hard-core war supporters -- McCaffrey wanted more U.S. troops in Iraq. He even signed a 2005 letter from PNAC -- along with the likes of Kristol, the mighty Kagan Brothers, Max Boot, Frank Gaffney, Michael O'Hanlon and Peter Beinart -- demanding that more troops be deployed to Iraq (the Kagans, O'Hanlon and Beinart -- despite their relative youth -- were all unavailable for duty).

It really ought to go without saying by now that advocating more troops for the War hardly made one a "war critic" nor did it demonstrate independence from the Bush administration's propaganda campaign for the War. To the contrary, the fact that both McCaffrey and Downing had financial ties to the defense industry which would stand to profit from policies entailing more defense spending further calls into question their independence, rather than resolves those questions.

The April, 2003 Nation article -- which long ago put NBC News on specific notice about the glaring conflicts precluding McCaffrey's objectivity -- made this point explicitly:

McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that "armor and artillery don't count" enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and . . . the Bradley fighting vehicle," and added for good measure that the "war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker." In March alone, IDT [on whose Board of Directors McCaffrey sat] received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware.

Is it even possible for there to be more incriminating evidence than this?  Just compare NBC News' appallingly false email statement that "We've yet to see concrete proof of a correlation between any of his outside business interests and his statements made on our air" with the fact that McCaffrey used NBC to "criticize Rumsfeld" by gushing praise for the very tanks from which IDT greatly profits but which Rumsfeld was failing to sufficiently appreciate.  How dishonest do you have to be to deny that that constitutes a serious journalistic conflict?  And that's to say nothing of the endless support McCaffrey expressed on NBC for the War in Iraq and the greater "War on Terror" while he had all sorts of extensive ties to defense contractors that profited greatly from increased spending on both, and while he participated in the Pentagon's propaganda program.

Note, especially, that none of the responses -- from NBC, McCaffrey or his P.R. firm -- even pretend to address, let alone dispute, any of the ample facts that have been set forth in the case against NBC and McCaffrey.  Instead, NBC points to the numerous shiny medals on McCaffrey's chest in order to imply that it is simply wrong and offensive to question the propriety of such a great and credentialed man ("General McCaffrey is a retired Four Star General, a two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor . . . He is a true American hero").  That's the same "defense" on which its anchor, Brian Williams, relied when assuring us in April that he had formed a "close friendship" with McCaffrey and knew him to be a "passionate patriot," and therefore it was outrageous for anyone to dare suggest that there might be wrongdoing here.  

Can one even imagine a supposed news organization exhibiting a more unhealthy and more unquestioning reverence for a General than this?  Is that the same credential-revering, authority-worshiping mentality that drives NBC's coverage of Pentagon officials and war Generals? (yes, that's a rhetorical question, though this mini-profile of Brian Williams answers it).  Amazingly, the executive who submitted NBC's formal reply to Barstow, Allison Gollust, actually wrote this:

Our relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant [sic] of journalism.

Actually, basic tenets of journalism include investigation, skepticism and disclosure of facts -- all the things missing from NBC News' conduct.  But blindly trusting government officials and their military medals are not basic tenets of journalism, at least not in theory -- and at least not outside of establishment news outlets such as NBC News.  Is that the NBC News motto engraved on its letterhead and wall plaques:  We trust in government officials and military leaders -- a basic tenant of journalism.

In his emails to NBC executives, McCaffrey -- undoubtedly aware that the biggest blow to his reputation would come from having NBC News finally address, in a forthright manner, its years-long reliance on such a hopelessly conflicted "analyst" -- heaps sycophantic praise on them for their defense of McCaffrey to Barstow:

Very balanced, objective response.

Underscores my view of NBC as an enterprise based on journalistics [sic] ethics --- and courage.

Proud to be associated with this team of professionals.

Describing NBC as an organization of "journalistic ethics" and "courage" here is almost as ludicrous as NBC's claim in those emails that its "viewers have been, and will continue to be, well served by [McCaffrey's] incisive and thoughtful comments."  One can scarcely imagine cowardice and unethical behavior as brazen as this.  But NBC News knows full well that few people turn to it for those attributes, and -- even after two massive, abundantly documented front-page NYT exposés -- it thus obviously lacks even the slightest interest in addressing, let alone rectifying, what it has done here.

* * * * * 

One last point:  I do hope none of this ruins my chances of succeeding Tim Russert on Meet the Press.


UPDATE:  In the Columbia Journalism Review, Charles Kaiser asks -- rhetorically:  "Is there any limit to the shamelessness of NBC News?" and then explains:

It turns out that McCaffrey is the living embodiment of all the worst aspects of entrenched Washington corruption—a man who shares with scores of other retired officers a huge financial interest in having America conduct its wars for as long as possible.

He adds:  "And yet, to this day, NBC News has never once disclosed any of McCaffrey’s multiple conflicts of interest on the air — and as recently as last Thursday Williams was still using the retired general on Nightly News to opine about Afghanistan." 

Someone apparently forgot to tell the Columbia Journalism Review that Brian Williams developed a "close friendship" with McCaffrey and knows him to be a "passionate patriot" and that NBC's "relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant of journalism."  That changes everything.  


UPDATE II:  This superb comment astutely points out the numerous parallels between the behavior of NBC News here and Bush/Cheney circa 2003.

----- Original Message -----

From: McCormick, David (NBC Universal)

To: Melissa Henson ; [Barry R. McCaffrey]

Sent: Thursday, November 20, 2008 11:47 AM

Subject: FW: From NBC News



Hi Barry...

Here is the email to Barstow (with the revisions we just discussed).

Thanks for your additions.

Let's talk tomorrow about a weekend strategy and our telephone contacts.






From: Gollust, Allison (NBC Universal)

Sent: Thursday, November 20, 2008 11:35 AM

To: [David Barstow]

Cc: Capus, Steve (NBC Universal); McCormick, David (NBC Universal)

Subject: From NBC News

Dear Mr. Barstow:


Here is our on the record response to your request.


Before we address the issues you have raised with your current article, it bears repeating that we remain very concerned about your first article. We believe it left your readers with an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the NBC News military analysts. It ignored the criticism expressed by our analysts of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon strategy in Iraq. Further, it suggested that every military analyst listed or pictured in the NY Times article became a conduit for unfiltered propaganda.

This is a gross distortion of the truth as it relates to the NBC News analysts.


With regard to General Barry McCaffrey, it was evident you were aware of his critical remarks because you acknowledged them in your emails to the General even before the article was published. Yet, you left this important contextual information out of your article. Our lingering concerns have only been reinforced by your most recent email to us with questions regarding General McCaffrey, some of which are based on false assumptions.


The basic premise that General McCaffrey profited from his on-air appearances defies logic given the critical tone of the General’s repeated comments regarding Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon.

We've yet to see concrete proof of a correlation between any of his outside business interests and his statements made on our air. Truly, the opposite appears to be the case. General McCaffrey put himself at odds with the Pentagon decision makers time and time again -- not only on NBC's air, but in his public appearances and many writings. In fact, he has lost potential outside opportunities precisely because he had made an ethical decision to be objective and make critical comments when warranted.


Our relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant of journalism. He has provided us with periodic, detailed reports on his outside activities and meetings. He has assured us that he is not directly incentivized in any of his outside business relationships. We have agreed that he would either recuse himself from any discussion where a conflict might exist or disclose a relationship should that be necessary.

General McCaffrey is a retired Four Star General, a two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor. He is one of the foremost experts on defense matters and has earned a reputation for his independent thinking.


We are proud to have General Barry McCaffrey as a member of the NBC News organization, where he provides objective and non-partisan analysis. He is a true American hero who is not afraid to speak his mind even if it sometimes ruffles some feathers in Washington. We believe our viewers have been, and will continue to be, well served by his incisive and thoughtful comments.


----- Original Message -----


To: McCormick, David (NBC Universal)

Cc: Brian NBC-Williams ; Elena NBC-Nachmanoff ; Steve NBC-Capus

Sent: Friday, November 21, 2008 12:01 AM

Subject: Re: From NBC News





Very balanced, objective response.


Underscores my view of NBC as an enterprise based on journalistics ethics--- and courage.


Proud to be associated with this team of professionals.



By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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