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NBC News: Where PR triumphs over the Truth


By Joseph Trento


First of all, we at the National Security News Service have a bias regarding the New York Times’ stories about Pentagon consultants. Two NSNS reporters, Christopher Law and David Armstrong, provided the tip that resulted in David Barstow’s groundbreaking April 2008 exposé of Pentagon propaganda—two of the best stories on the subject since CBS’s fabled 1971 documentary, “The Selling of the Pentagon.”

Barstow’s NSNS-inspired reporting revealed that purportedly objective military experts who appeared as commentators on national news shows were in fact apologists for Bush Administration policies.

“To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as ‘military analysts’ whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world,” Barstow wrote in an article titled “Behind TV Analysts, the Pentagon’s Hidden Hand."

“Behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.”

Barstow’s reporting exposed executives from Fox, NBC/MSNBC, CNN, CBS, ABC and others as corporate suits more concerned about their image than the fact that motives were at play having nothing to do with informing the public and everything to do with keeping access open to the Bush/Rumsfeld Pentagon and making a few bucks on the side for defense contractor clients.

The skills Barstow demonstrated in carefully and fairly exposing how the Bush Pentagon used former military officials to sell its war demonstrates the kind of journalism that should be celebrated. The lack of support Barstow has received from colleagues in what remains of the old media is a disgrace. But the attack that NBC News President Steve Capus has been running against Barstow deserves contempt from all journalists.

Capus has taken to defending his network’s actions by citing the January 16, 2009, Pentagon Inspector General’s report exonerating the retirees despite the fact that they received regular, special briefings from their former Pentagon colleagues before their network appearances, were paid by NBC and others for their views, and were presented to the public as independent, expert analysts. Even though some of them were repeating Pentagon talking points and were shilling for companies paying them to obtain Pentagon business from their Pentagon buddies, the Pentagon’s IG said—four days before the end of the Bush administration—that these charges did not violate internal policies and were without foundation.

Really? Without foundation?

Read Barstow’s coverage of the Pentagon’s IG’s report It pretty much sums up what an embarrassment the Pentagon’s watchdog has become. The IG has never been a bulldog, but during the Bush administration it became a lapdog.

Fortunately, the IG report is easy to unmask as a lame attempt to exonerate the military’s enormous and expensive PR operations. The IG made no effort to follow obvious leads, and the report is filled with factual inaccuracies. Key players refused to cooperate. No one spoke under oath.

The New York Times’ public editor wrote an outstanding explanatory piece about Barstow’s story exposing what General Barry McCaffrey, a once-valiant, thrice-wounded war hero has become.

The fact that McCaffrey tried to maintain his integrity and distance himself from the Pentagon consultants scandal is all the more outrageous after we learned that he tamped down his criticism of Donald Rumsfeld once he found himself frozen out of speaking engagements and other lucrative opportunities. McCaffrey screwed up. He got caught and tried to blame the messenger for exposing what he did. Ugly, but typical.

As for Steve Capus, who is supposed to understand the news business, it is just plain sad.

Perhaps Capus cannot be blamed for NBC News embracing all things military. Many networks and newspapers jumped into the post-9/11 world with unquestioning gusto. But NBC News pioneered paying ex-military types to spout off on the air beginning with Tom Brokaw during the first Gulf War. When Bush II launched Iraq II, NBC portrayed the generals as a new “greatest generation” to embrace. NBC News ratings and General Electric stood to profit. The inventive David Bloom’s mobile reports enthralled all of us. NBC was good at getting to the war but not great at getting to the bottom of what it was about until they had the good fortune to hire a brilliant young reporter named Richard Engle. But as support for and interest in the war waned, NBC News, like so many others, closed their expensive, fulltime Baghdad bureau, forsaking objective, on-the-ground reporting in favor of the “analysis” of Pentagon mouthpieces.

But while NSNS discloses its bias, NBC News does not.

Capus clearly demonstrates that he knows on which side his corporate bread is buttered. He acts like Jack Donaghy, the Alex Baldwin character on his own network’s 30 Rock, who looks ridiculous trying to maneuver among the competing divisions of the once mighty General Electric, juggling the interests of defense contractors with entertainment writers and comedians.

Like the fictional Donaghy, Capus seems to relish these conflicting roles. Instead of apologizing to viewers and moving on, he has been the public attack dog defending the former Pentagon officials his network hired as independent “news consultants” without disclosing their ties to the Pentagon’s war effort as “message force multipliers.” This brass became tarnished because they misled the American public by not revealing their conflicts of interest when speaking as authorities about the Iraq War. From a GE/Defense conglomerate perspective, Capus has done an admirable job defending the indefensible. But in the process he has disgraced his role as the top journalism executive at NBC News. In December I suggested he be removed as head of NBC News. Considering GE’s financial future, perhaps he should just move over to home appliances.  

Watching the entire story unfold over the last three years, I shed my tears for the state that journalism is rapidly becoming. The New York Times supported Barstow financially, legally and emotionally through a long ordeal to get to the bottom of the story. They deserve the Pulitzer Prize. But look at other news outlets’ coverage of the IG’s report like the Washington Post

Today, overworked reporters cover government reports with little time and less knowledge of the issues. Journalists used to compete to advance a story. When the Washington Post broke the Watergate story, the New York Times, CBS News and many other outlets pursued it from all directions. If the Watergate story broke today and the White House issued a report that said it had no involvement in the break-in, most news organizations would report it and move on. The Fourth Estate is becoming a small condo that no one can sell.


Without the resources, time and perseverance, stories like Barstow’s cannot be done. We are losing that ability with nothing to replace it. That is the real tragedy.


(c) Joe Trento

Reprinted herein with the author's permission.


Posted  April 23, 2009

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