Alex Constantine - May 14, 2008
By Joe Strupp
Editor & Publisher
April 30, 2008
NEW YORK The massive New York Times probe 10 days ago about retired military officers, prepped by the Pentagon, who served as influential television commentators since the runup to the Iraq war -- and also have conflicting ties to defense contractors -- has sparked a serious backlash among many journalists, such as Howard Kurtz, and others since it ran a week and a half ago.
But one group has remained largely silent: the television networks themselves.
Despite an avalanche of criticism throughout the blogosphere, and by a handful of journalism veterans and critics, the news chiefs and on-air hosts at CNN, FOX, ABC, NBC, and CBS, have had little reaction to the revelations concerning the "Media Generals."
New York Times editors, meanwhile, have declined to comment on the issue, with staff writer David Barstow, who wrote the original April 20 piece, telling E&P only: "I am continuing to do reporting on the subject. I would like to keep sticking to what I have been doing."
Even when NBC News anchor Brian Williams finally broached the subject yesterday -- on his blog -- he felt the need to criticize the Times first before claiming that the on-air use of retired generals was not a problem. "I can only account for the men I know best," he wrote. "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."
But Williams defense of two retired generals he worked with does not seem to be enough response for many who follow such issues, including members of Military Reporters and Editors, the association of military writers. The group has come out strongly against the practice this week and also criticized the networks for failing to respond.
"I am a little surprised that there hasn't been more reaction to it," said Ron Martz, MRE president and a former military reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It is something that resonated in our group. It makes us concerned about how much we have to reveal about the corporate ties of the sources that we use for stories on military affairs."
Martz said MRE has already planned to add at least one panel, or more, on the issue for its annual convention in the fall. "Many of us have used these generals as sources and the story made us sit up and take notice," he added. "I am surprised that the networks haven't reacted more to this. I would think there would be a little bit more response by the networks."
Lou Hansen, a MRE board member and military reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, agreed. "You would like for them to react more," he said. "You want to know as much about a source as possible. It would be nice for TV to acknowledge something like this. It is a big deal."
Carl Prine, another MRE leader and investigative reporter on military affairs for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, said much of the television non-reaction should not be a surprise, given that networks approach the use of the generals differently, including paying many of them. "Most print reporters ask sources if they have any financial ties," he added. "For T.V., it doesn’t seem that they fully vetted these guys -- or were deceived."
Prine said more needs to be known about the specifics of the contracts the networks have with some of these generals, citing a possible legal issue. "I don’t know what these contracts say," he added. "I don’t see why they would need to pay the people in the first place."
For Don North, a veteran television journalist and now a freelance filmmaker whose experience dates back to covering the Vietnam War, questionable dealings by retired generals are not a surprise. "I gave up trusting what generals had to say a long time ago," says North, whose past work included stints at ABC and NBC. "Gen. [William] Westmoreland gave me cause to do that a long time ago."
As for the television networks' lack of response, North says: "I am not surprised that the network executives, the suits there, have not been rushing to justify themselves. It is their nature to shut the hell up and hope it will blow over."
But the blow-over has not occurred. Among other critiques since the Times story ran has been that from Howard Kurtz, media writer for The Washington Post who also hosts "Reliable Sources" on CNN.
In a chat with online readers this week, Kurtz said: "I don't agree that the MSM cover war and economics poorly but I do think their coverage of this important issue has been pathetic." He later added, "If there has been any coverage of this on CBS, NBC, ABC, MSNBC or Fox, I've missed it. The story makes the networks look bad, and their response, by and large, has been to ignore it."
Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com weighed in this morning, once again, writing: "It has now been more than ten days since the New York Times exposed the Pentagon's domestic propaganda program involving retired generals and, still, not a single major news network has even mentioned the story to their viewers, let alone responded to the numerous questions surrounding their own behavior.
"This steadfast blackout occurs despite the fact that the Pentagon propaganda program almost certainly violates numerous federal laws; both Democratic presidential candidates sternly denounced the Pentagon's conduct; and Congressional inquiries are already underway, all of which forced the Pentagon to announce that it suspended its program....
"Just consider what is going on here. The core credibility of war reporting by Brian Williams and NBC News has been severely undermined by a major NYT expose. That story involves likely illegal behavior by the Pentagon, in which NBC News appears to have been complicit, resulting in the deceitful presentation of highly biased and conflicted individuals as 'independent' news analysts. Yet they refuse to tell their viewers about any of this, and refuse to address any of the questions that have been raised." Greenwald has several lengthy posts, with updates, at:
Several chapters related to this subject are included in E&P Editor Greg Mitchell's new book, "So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq."