NBC's "One-Man Military-Industrial-Media Complex"
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What will it take for the Defense Department officials involved to be held responsible for an illegal government propaganda campaign? Why don't news professionals realize that they need to vet their commentators and disclose any potential conflicts of interest to their audiences? When will the cable and network television stations that featured the Pentagon's pundits tell viewers that their war commentary was anything but independent?
An in-depth article on one of 75 retired military officers covertly cultivated by the Pentagon to be its "message force multipliers" recently raised these questions yet again. Retired general, NBC News analyst and industry consultant Barry McCaffrey is a prime example of "a deeply opaque world," where "privileged access to senior government officials" and "war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests," writes New York Times reporter David Barstow. It was Barstow who first reported on the Pentagon pundit program, which was launched in early 2002 to help sell the Iraq war and later expanded to promote Bush administration talking points on such controversial issues as Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping.
In his follow-up to his April 2008 expose, Barstow focuses on McCaffrey as a one-man "military-industrial-media complex." Barstow carefully documents how McCaffrey's high-level contacts -- his contentious relationship with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld notwithstanding -- along with his media access and his role as a consultant for military and security contractors afforded McCaffrey opportunities to advance the interests of his clients, while profiting handsomely himself. For example, McCaffrey used insider information, obtained on Pentagon-funded trips to Iraq, to help the company Defense Solutions refine its proposal to supply Iraq with 5,000 armored vehicles. McCaffrey then promoted the Defense Solutions proposal directly to Iraq forces commander General David Petraeus, and made comments supportive of it during media appearances, as well as in testimony before Congress and in correspondence with policymakers and Defense Department officials -- all while failing to disclose that Defense Solutions was his client.
It's regrettable, but perhaps not surprising, that a military man wouldn't appreciate the need to disclose such conflicts of interest in his media appearances. McCaffrey's response to Barstow's article, posted on the website of his consulting firm, BR McCaffrey Associates, does not address the issue of disclosure. "When he sees a concept that would support military interests," the statement reads, "he does of course recommend it to national defense leaders. … General McCaffrey is an expert on national security. He is not a reporter."
However, the reporters at NBC News also failed to understand the importance of disclosure. NBC News president Steve Capus claimed that while McCaffrey is not held to the network's conflict-of-interest rules because of his status as a consultant, he is an "independent voice" whose business interests simply don't impact his commentary. According to emails obtained by Glenn Greenwald, NBC coordinated its response to Barstow's article with McCaffrey. Worse, NBC has yet to report on the Pentagon pundit scandal -- or even respond to the commenters on its "Daily Nightly" blog who have asked about McCaffrey.
In addition to documenting how easily military uniforms and medals have masked hidden interests and shaped coverage of the most important issues of the past several years, Barstow's new article further shows the journalistic bankruptcy of war commentary. In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, McCaffrey had "significant doubts" about the size of the U.S. invasion force and the lack of post-invasion planning. Yet, in his appearances on NBC and its cable affiliates, McCaffrey was a cheerleader for the imminent war. Days before the invasion, McCaffrey told Tom Brokaw that he had no "real serious" concerns about invading Iraq. When McCaffrey belatedly admitted some doubts, Rumsfeld cut him out of the Pentagon's pundit briefings and calls. Yet, the Pentagon continued to cultivate McCaffrey and monitor his public statements, arguably paying more attention to him than to their stable of more compliant pundits.