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The Pentagon's Spin Machine

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A shocking story got lost in the media frenzy on the Pennsylvania primary this weekend. The New York Times had an explosive report finding that most of the retired brass and senior experts that you see on television are merely reciting Pentagon talking points. A massive Pentagon PR effort, started years ago to ensure that the most senior retired military officials get the party line, is paying dividends. The airwaves are now flooded with men who have "retired General," "former Green Beret," and "Colonel (Ret.)" attached to their name telling you what the Pentagon wants you to hear.

Reports the Times :

Torie Clarke, the former public relations executive who oversaw the Pentagon's dealings with the analysts as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, had come to her job with distinct ideas about achieving what she called "information dominance." In a spin-saturated news culture, she argued, opinion is swayed most by voices perceived as authoritative and utterly independent.

And so even before Sept. 11, she built a system within the Pentagon to recruit "key influentials" -- movers and shakers from all walks who with the proper ministrations might be counted on to generate support for Mr. Rumsfeld's priorities.

The analysts, they noticed, often got more airtime than network reporters, and they were not merely explaining the capabilities of Apache helicopters. They were framing how viewers ought to interpret events. What is more, while the analysts were in the news media, they were not of the news media. They were military men, many of them ideologically in sync with the administration's neoconservative brain trust, many of them important players in a military industry anticipating large budget increases to pay for an Iraq war.

It's eerie how in unison the voices were. You can see that in the Times interactive feature, which lays out the evidence for their story.

Of course, not all the retired Generals marched in lockstep. General Anthony Zinni took to NBC to call for then Secretary Rumsfeld to resign. Major Generals Paul Eaton and John Batiste also called for Rumsfeld to step down, and, as many here know, appeared in ads from VoteVets.org, highly critical of the administration. And yet, after he came out to criticize the Pentagon, CBS fired Batiste as an analyst, rather than invite him on the air even more, to counter-balance the Pentagon spin machine.

Likewise, when you listen to those who are not part of the Pentagon spin machine, you get the blunt, honest truth. In the leadup to the war, retired General Wesley Clark offered strong testimony to the Senate, predicting, almost to a T, what the aftermath of an invasion would be.

Certainly, General Clark wasn't the only military expert with that opinion, but you didn't see too many people who attested to that on TV at the time.

The scarier point is how those retired military brass and defense consultants appear much more frequently to explain Iraq, than the troops who fought in the war. Note the names in the Times article, and think about how many times you have seen them on television. Then think about how many times you've seen the veterans who fought in this war on those same shows to offer a different point of view.

That's a problem. As far as too many networks are concerned, retired senior officials with no experience in the current conflicts are more credible than the troops who actually fought in the wars. Even if those retired men simply parrot the lines the Pentagon feeds them.

There are exceptions. Hardball has been excellent at giving Iraq and Afghanistan veterans a voice. Countdown with Keith Olbermann has given veterans of the wars so many opportunities to talk about what they saw. CNN has offered some opportunities, as well, but could do even more.

But those are the exceptions, not the rule. I sincerely hope that network and cable news takes a much more critical look at who they are putting on the air, and what their angle is. To this point, I'm sad to say, the news has been so infected with Pentagon mouthpieces that the war has been largely analyzed through a rose-colored camera lens.

The media still has a chance to make amends. One easy and quick way would be to put those on air to analyze the war, who actually served in the war. This is the entire reason that VoteVets.org exists - to give voice to America's 21st Century Patriots - those who fought in the wars and agree with the majority of troops and veterans, who consistently say in poll after poll that we are on the wrong track in Iraq.