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The NYT's Selective, Misleading Pentagon Story

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I need to weigh in on the controversy surrounding that now-infamous New York Times article about the Pentagon's secret campaign to influence network military experts. There has been a lot of outrage about it, and that outrage is not misplaced — but it's been way, way too generalized. It's a 7,500-plus-word story — 16 pages printed out — so it's not surprising that so many of the people who are brandishing it angrily online didn't take the time to thoroughly examine who, exactly, was accused of doing what, exactly — and with what proof. That's their fault, but it's also the fault of author David Barstow and the New York Times for presenting the article as a broad, sweeping indictment of all analysts on all networks — and allowing their excitement about uncovering a significant, damaging story to affect their journalistic integrity in whom they allowed it to implicate.

Hold your fire. I'm going to put my money where my mouth is and actually support these statements, okay? With facts — or the glaring lack thereof. Look, it's a great piece of investigative journalism — Barstow and the NYT uncovered an appalling and important story. They proved their case against the Pentagon, hands down. But they did not prove their case against the generals and other military men whom they name-dropped in that story. Which means they did not necessarily prove their case against the networks. I'm going to address these issues in two parts, because they are separate, and ought to be treated as such — the first deals with the duty of the independent analyst to be, well, independent, and the second deals with the duty the networks owe the viewer, both in vetting who speaks on air and responding to this kind of attack on their journalistic credibility.


Let's just get this established firmly, once again, so there is no mistake here: The NYT easily proved its case against the Pentagon. It (and Barstow) also tenaciously hung on to this story, forcing the Pentagon to (finally) release the 8,000 pages of transcript after being Heismanned every step of the way. And who knows, that may just be the tip of the iceberg (8,000 pages of transcript is actually not that much over 5 years between that many people — Media Matters accounts for 4,500 television appearances of the 20 military analysts named in the article since January 2002, which suggests quite a bit more paperwork. Given how information has to be dragged kicking and screaming out of this administration, I'd put money on it). So the case against the Pentagon was amply made.


But — just because the Pentagon mounted a sophisticated information system aimed at influencing military analysts does not mean that their aim was always true. I'm going to quote Barstow on that right here: "Many — although certainly not all — faithfully echoed talking points intended to counter critics."

Barstow says "certainly not all" but in fact spends most of the article insinuating that actually, yes, it was pretty much all. The word "many" and other vague qualifiers are used over and over again to describe the analysts partaking in the campaign, often voluntarily. But "many" is a reeeaaaallly unspecific term (Jack Shafer, back me up here), and hardly sufficient for grounding the kind of allegations that the article makes over and over again. ("Many" felt that "pessimistic war coverage broke the nation's will to win in Vietnam." Who? On what basis? Appearing on what networks?) The specifics matter, and in "many" cases in the article, they are lacking. (I have the word "who?" scribbled in the margins of my printout "many" times.) For those of you who picked those allegations up and ran with them, well, shame on you. You just became message multipliers yourself.

It matters. Those differences matter. Why? Because of paragraphs like this:

"Many analysts strongly denied that they had either been co-opted or had allowed outside business interests to affect their on-air comments, and some have used their platforms to criticize the war."

There's that word many again, with a some thrown in, too. The article does not name names here, conveniently, because that would confuse the central thesis — even if it was more accurate, and more fair. Here, I'll give you an example: Barstow mentions NBC analyst General Barry McCaffrey exactly once in this piece, and not even in connection with any sort of Pentagon relationship. McCaffrey and the late General Wayne Downing, also with NBC, also only mentioned here, are cited as having had "ideological ties" to the Pentagon via the Committee for Liberation of Iraq, the pro-invasion group formed in 2002 to promote the deposing of Saddam Hussein. He doesn't mention that the CLI was actually disbanded early in 2003. He also doesn't mention something else from 2003: McCaffrey's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Rumsfeld in Denial," with this opening line: "Iraq is a military and political mess, and it's not getting better."

The fact is, McCaffrey was a well-known and outspoken critic of Rumsfeld and the mismanagement of the war — both in the wider media and bluntly to the Pentagon itself (see this blistering email to Lawrence DiRita here). But why do I need to defend McCaffrey about something this well-known? Why wasn't this a significant element of the article? The best Barstow could do was point to his membership on a pro-invasion body in 2002 — back when the war was supposed to be surgical and short, and before it devolved into the "military and political mess" that McCaffrey called it on the record? It seems like a pretty glaring omission for an article that uses McCaffrey as an example of a military analyst with "ideological ties" to the Pentagon. Does calling out Rumsfeld for his "crippling sense of arrogance" and "terrible instincts" and being "ruthless and mostly self-serving" sound like ideological agreement?

No, it doesn't — but that would have done little to advance the thesis that the Pentagon's disinformation program infected all the anlaysts on all the networks. Barstow name-drops McCaffrey and Downing for an early association — but does he cite a single instance of on-air Pentagon-pushing? He mentions that they each had consulting firms and held board memberships, but that was it — no example of any commentary that could be brought back to bias or self-interest (or Pentagon pushery, which Barstow did not explicitly link to either man). I said "explicitly" — because the illustration accompanying the article included screenshots of six military analysts, one of whom was Downing. That, however, is the sum total of the case made against him — but there's surely no shortage of information about him, or indeed disclosures about his role at the network — Brian Williams wrote extensively about Downing after he died, and in his obituary discussed Downing's ongoing public/private role between the network and the military, the limits on what he would discuss, and his various consultancies. Barstow could easily have ascertained this (as I did, by Googling "Wayne Downing"). If he had, he would also have found this, by MSNBC military analyst Jack Jacobs: "An inveterate teller of the truth, the White House didn't like much of what he said because it was antithetical to its untutored assumption that defeating terrorists was merely a case of launching precision munitions."

I'm not going to go on and do this for every person mentioned in the article — I can't, and besides, it's not my job. It was Barstow's job to back up the allegations and insinuations he made, and to present a complete and accurate picture of the men he impugned. I'm not saying that he didn't nail a bunch of them dead to rights (though it would have been nice to get a name for the guy who talked about fooling "the Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzers of the world"), but I am saying that he painted with way too broad a brush. Of the twenty men named, I counted 12 that were either cited as having been influenced on-air or having a specific, named business affiliation that could have been a conflict (including one who was later "fired" from the analyst group); 8 were cited in specific examples of either comments made or held back on air; 5 indicated that they had not been influenced (even if they were aware that they were targets of PR and/or held board memberships); and numerous analysts who were not named (including 9 who wrote op-eds for the NYT). Two analysts cited in the story subsequently emphasized to Howard Kurtz that they were never influenced and always formed independent judgments based on their own analysis (one of them was quoted in the piece as Pentagon-positive).

Bottom line: If the NYT is going to imply that people carried water for the Pentagon, they damn well better prove it. In my evaluation, they did not — not for everyone. It fell to the NYT to differentiate between these men where it was warranted, and to do the necessary due diligence to back up allegation and insinuation with proof. They did not — which would be a journalistic offense against anyone, but is particularly egregious in the case of military men who have gone to the front lines for their country.


If the piece didn't prove the case against the analysts, does that mean the networks that used them are off the hook? No way. In my view, all the networks fumbled this ball by not addressing the story head on, both in terms of the attack on their credibility and as news organizations reporting on a major story. The silence was "deafening," as John Kerry told Michael Calderone and Avi Zenilman, who wrote of the reaction to the non-coverage of the April 20, 2008 NYT cover story, including a letter sent to FCC chair Kevin J. Martin by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) requesting an investigation into the Pentagon program to determine "if the networks or analysts violated federal law." That, by the way, is the correct terminology: Urging an investigation, rather than making sweeping statements about network culpability. I'm not going to go through Barstow's piece again to delineate which network said what and had which policies that were or were not adhered to by which analysts — what matters here is the perception of impropriety, and how that affected the credibility of the networks.

Why is the onus on the networks if the NYT failed to make a slam-dunk case against them? Well, because it did make a slam-dunk case against the Pentagon — and the networks were the targets. That alone should have been enough to conduct some sort of review — not just the kneejerk network denials like "We have clear policies in place to assure that the people who appear on our air have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest". That was from NBC, which may well have such pre-vetting policies — but now that there is the perception of a conflict of interest, greater action was warranted. And while the article failed to cite any instances of impropriety on the part of McCaffrey, Downing or General Kenneth Allard, it did cite General Montgomery Meigs as saying on the Today show that Guantanamo Bay was "very professionally run."

To his credit, NBC anchor Brian Williams was the only person who stepped up and addressed the article (except for a brief mention by Keith Olbermann) — but he did so on his blog, not on the air, where the real news stories live (but to those who are apoplectic that NBC dared to cover Hannah Montana, at ease - it is unlikely that Hannah Montana took the slot that the Pentagon story would otherwise have taken). Williams' blog post actually addresses the issue pretty thoroughly, clarifying that he "knew full well whenever either man went on a fact-finding mission or went for high-level briefings" and that "They never came back spun, and never attempted a conversion." He noted that Downing criticized the U.S. "war on the cheap" early and often, and that McCaffrey's criticism of Rumsfeld and the Pentagon was such that Williams personally "fielded complaint calls [from] the Pentagon, from the White House, from the highest levels of the Administration." He also mentioned Jacobs, who was not cited in the article, as never hesitating to "take a whack at the Pentagon brass" (like, say, here). He summed up thusly:

I think it's fair, of course, to hold us to account for the military analysts we employ, inasmuch as we can ever fully know the "off-duty" actions of anyone employed on an "of counsel" basis by us. I can only account for the men I know best. The Times article was about the whole lot of them -- including instances involving other networks and other experts, who can answer for themselves. At no time did our analysts, on my watch or to my knowledge, attempt to push a rosy Pentagon agenda before our viewers. I think they are better men than that, and I believe our news division is better than that.

This almost covers it, except that Williams makes it personal — and this was systematic. Though the article with its highly-selective examples actually does not support allegations against McCaffrey and Downing, as I explained above, that still doesn't account for Meigs — nor does it account for the fact that NBC was clearly the target of a sustained and systemic program. On his blog and personally, Williams can account for the men he knew best (and being patriots is a nice character reference, but far more important is his fully-informed journalistic assessment that these men were independent analysts).

NBC — all the networks — have to answer for this because their coverage was shaped by these men, and the expertise they brought to the table. To the extent that those expert opinions were targeted, on a sustained basis and with measurable success, it then becomes incumbent on the networks to assure viewers that those opinions were not tainted — or to acknowledge and apologize if they were. Williams' blog post falls clearly short of that; when I asked an NBC spokesperson in an email last week if the network would be investigating the independence of the commentary given by military analysts on its air, I received no answer.

I will say this: Over and over, in example after example, the military men who drove the Pentagon agenda were from Fox. For this article, Barstow says that Fox News "refused to participate," but it's clear that the network's participation in the actual program was consistent and reliable. That, as Williams says, isn't the responsibility of other networks, but as evidence of the program it is enough to warrant an examination and a response from any network who might have been targeted (even ABC, the least-impugned network, with one lone analyst mentioned, and only in the context of being "repulsed" and unconvinced by the Pentagon's outreach).

This duty, by the way, extends beyond the network — like, say, to newspapers accepting op-eds from retired military officers. Like, say, the NYT: "At least nine of them have written op-ed articles for The Times," wrote Barstow. Next to this paragraph I wrote "Who? About what?" Those are two questions that matter, because it shows that the NYT, too, was a platform targeted by Pentagon talking points. In a related "Talk to the Newsroom" with Barstow, op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal pipes up, drawing a false distinction between "opinion articles" and "military analysis" (wouldn't someone being tapped to write an opinion piece for the NYT base those opinions on analysis? And if they were opining on matters relating to the military, wouldn't that be military analysis?). Even if, as Rosenthal says, the op-eds were not presented as "military analysis or objective reporting," the issue here and in the case of the networks is one of transparency and independence behind the opinions (and analysis) expressed. Here's what Rosenthal writes: "None of the articles reflected the Pentagon's efforts to paint a falsely rosy view of events in Iraq, nor was there any conflict involving any author's business interests." Sounds a lot like Brian Williams' blog post, as do Rosenthal's further explanations about disclosures required by the NYT. To his credit, Rosenthal seems to have done a thorough accounting of the articles; still, it was an odd omission in the original piece.


So — if you're still with me, I just spent 2,700+ words parsing this article — which is probably one of the reasons no one else has done it yet. Even Media Matters, who ran today's impressive item tracking the 4,500 appearances of the named military analysts notes at the bottom that "in conducting this study, Media Matters did not assess whether individual instances of commentary -- or the analysts themselves -- were supportive of administration policy." That's because all of this takes time, and care, and individual attention — the bare-minimum required when questioning someone's reputation and motives. The NYT and Barstow produced an impressive and important piece of investigative journalism, but they failed to reach this standard in many of the analysts cited. (And yeah, I said "many.")

Does this mean that these or other analysts weren't affected by the Pentagon program, and didn't take the spin on the air? Hell no — it just means that if you allege it, you've got to prove it. For the networks, though, the burden of proof is different — the onus is now on them to double-check that their coverage was not affected. Here, the overall evidence Barstow puts forth is compelling — the notion that a large group was targeted, affected and used (but not necessarily named — there's a lot of anonymity in the article, and in this recording, and in 8 of the 9 op-ed writers Rosenthal cites). That reality grounds more than just "a perception of a conflict of interest" — just ask DeLauro or Dingell, or any of the outraged bloggers I mentioned up top. Fairly or unfairly, it affects the credibility of the networks — however vigilant they have tried to be. At a minimum, it requires attention; at this point, though, acknowledgment would be a good first step.

Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand
Q&A With David Barstow [NYT]
Different Times [Daily Nightly]

'Deafening' Silence on Analyst Story [Politico]
Audio: Military Analysts Laud "The Leader" Rumsfeld [TPM]
Information That Doesn't Come Freely [NYT]