NPR Ombudsman

NPR Ombudsman


Media correspondent David Folkenflik reports on the issue of Pentagon consultants and the New York Times in his story which aired May 1 on All Things Considered.

What are your thoughts?

--Chantal de la Rionda, Office of the Ombudsman

By Alicia C. Shepard
The New York Times revealed last week that the Pentagon has long covertly pressured and pampered more than a dozen retired military officers hired by broadcast networks as analysts to ensure positive spin on the Iraq war.

Among those cited was a military consultant for NPR.

After a two-year investigation, Times' reporter David Barstow described how the Pentagon cultivated military analysts for TV and radio by providing special access hoping in exchange for positive spin on the war, particularly after it started going badly. In some cases, analysts used that access to promote their post-military careers with defense contractors.

Deep into the 7,600-word piece on April 20 Barstow mentioned an NPR military analyst, Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr. (Ret.) in an email he sent to the Pentagon that could be construed as Scales trying to gain favor in order to be sent to Iraq for high-level briefings. Scales denies this.

"Any thought that I'm a mouthpiece for this administration is ridiculous," said Scales in an interview. "I only ask that you review my positions on the toll that the war is taking on our soldiers and my frustrations with the inability of the administration to translate military advantage into political success and you will get my point. My main purpose for involving myself with the media is to explain warfare and the military to a society that is detached from us to a great degree."

In February 2003, NPR hired Scales, and Army Lt. Gen. Thomas G. Rhame (Ret.), to be on call as independent analysts partly because both were commanding generals in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and they could speak articulately about the Army.

Scales also was attractive to NPR because he was a Vietnam vet, former head of the Army War College and wrote the Army's official account of the Gulf War. NPR installed a high-quality audio phone line in Scales' home, and paid him $100 an hour, according to his contract. When war broke out in March 2003, Scales appeared on different NPR news shows -- a total of 36 times in 2003, including 11 times during NPR special news reports in first days of the war.

Scales also appeared on Fox News as a paid consultant. Between 2003 and 2004, he appeared on Fox 32 times with the title "military analyst," which negated any exclusivity for NPR.

Even after his NPR contract ended in March 2004, Scales continued to appear on air in an unpaid capacity. Since February 2003, he has been on NPR 67 times, most often (28 appearances) on All Things Considered (ATC). The latest was March 28, when he gave ATC listeners an assessment of the fifth anniversary of the war.

While Scales has a stellar military background, he is also president of Colgen, Inc., a defense consulting company. But rarely was he identified on air as a defense consultant. Only once in December 2006 was Scales' relationship to Colgen mentioned.

At the same time NPR hired Scales, the network also hired Rhame for $100 an hour, but did not install a home phone line, according to his contract.

Rhame is now a vice president of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), a private, non-profit educational organization that supports Army personnel and their families. During Operation Desert Storm, Rhame commanded the 1st Infantry Division.

Rhame has appeared on NPR news shows 48 times -- 43 of them in 2003. Unlike Scales, his affiliation with AUSA was often mentioned.

NPR put the two generals on contract because competition for military expertise among the electronic media was fierce as the war ramped up and NPR wanted its own experts on call.

"We were facing the unique situation that everyone was looking for the same resource," said Bruce Drake, former NPR vice president for news who left in 2005 and is with Congressional Quarterly. "Doing contracts for regulars was not something we often did. It was a pretty hectic time and there was a lot going on. I don't think there's any more mystery."

It was Tom Gjelten, NPR's Pentagon correspondent in 2003, who recommended Scales and Rhame based on their military expertise. Gjelten said they were not vetted for business ties that might pose conflicts.

"We didn't honestly even consider that as I recall," said Gjelten, who now covers intelligence agencies. "In the New York Times' analysis, it's a fairly complicated triangular scenario that produces a conflict: A General wants to be a military analyst on NPR or some other news organization in order to curry favor with the Department of Defense which in turn will benefit him in his defense contracting. That's a hypothetical scenario we have to be concerned about."

While Scales and Rhame may not have been vetted by NPR, it doesn't appear that either had any glaring business conflicts.

Rhame works for a non-profit. Scales sees himself as a historian and futurist who, as an independent consultant, writes papers and manuals. In fact, in the summer of 2004 Scales was one of the first retired generals to contend that the military -- not just the Bush administration -- should bear some blame for what was going wrong in Iraq.

Testifying to the House Armed Services Committee in 2004, he criticized the military for spending too much money on technology and not enough on educating its officers and soldiers about Iraq and Afghanistan.

"War is a thinking man's game," he testified. "A military too used to solving war-fighting problems just with technology alone should begin to realize that war must also be fought with intellect. We need to think about outthinking rather than out-equipping the enemy."

Scales co-founded Colgen, Inc. in 2003 with retired Col. Jack H. Pryor. Colgen is "a defense consulting and services company that advocates land power as the preeminent force in the defense of the nation," according to its web site.

"I write papers, manuals, articles, give speeches and briefings mainly on military history, concepts, future warfare and insights from Iraq and Afghanistan among other topics," said Scales, who has a PhD in history from Duke University. "In general, my clients hire me based on my reputation as a defense intellectual."

Both Gjelten and NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman say Scales does not spout the Pentagon's line.

"I have known Scales for years and like Tom (Gjelten) never heard him spin," said Bowman. "I have always found him to be well informed, decent and a straight shooter, and he was certainly no great fan of the (former Secretary of Defense Donald) Rumsfeld Pentagon, like many former and current Army generals who were also not fans."

Here is what The Times wrote about Scales:

Robert H. Scales, Jr., a retired Army General and analyst for Fox News and National Public Radio whose consulting company advises several military firms on weapons and tactics used in Iraq, wanted the Pentagon to approve high-level briefings for him inside Iraq in 2006.

"Recall the stuff I did after my last visit," he wrote. "I will do the same this time."

This was a reference to a trip Scales made to Iraq in October 2005, sponsored by the office of the secretary of defense.

"What I meant to say was that I went in 2005 and I came back and reported on what I saw and I will be perfectly open to do the same thing again," Scales told me.

But the Pentagon did not approve his request for a second visit in 2006. Scales says he returned to Iraq for eight days last November at the invitation of General David H. Petraeus, the current U.S. commander.

"When I think things are going well, I'll say that," said Scales. "When they are going badly, I'll say that. If NPR's audience is concerned about me being under the influence of contractors or the administration, they are wrong. Frankly, I was lumped together with a whole bunch of people who were cited in this article and the inference was somehow I was a shill for the administration. I'm not."

The Times story about the military analysts did not give Scales' an opportunity to explain his role, except for a quote that "none of us drink the Kool-aid." In other words, Scales said he and other generals did not automatically accept the Pentagon's arguments.

"The idea that I can't think for myself is what I find so disturbing about The Times' piece," said Scales.

After reading The Times story, however, about 40 NPR listeners either called or emailed to say they found it difficult to see Scales as anything but a lapdog for the Pentagon. Some said Scales should never appear on air again. Another suggested that all Scales interviews should be deleted from NPR's archives.

"As Ombudsman, you should demand that Scales be fired," wrote Vincent Valdmanis.

Since Scales is no longer on contract with NPR, he can't be fired. Rather than toss Scales off the air and lose his practical and scholarly knowledge of the Army, in the future NPR should always be transparent and identify him as a defense consultant with Colgen.

NPR's audience can evaluate what Scales says through that lens. NPR should also append a note to each archived Scales' appearances that indicates he is also a defense consultant with Colgen. What also is needed, and I believe NPR will now begin doing, is a more careful vetting of all experts before they go on air.

As soon as NPR editors read The Times' piece, emails began flying trying to assess the damage and determine how to proceed. NPR waited until Wednesday on Talk of the Nation to first discuss this issue publicly. The Bryant Park Project followed up the next day with two pieces on how the media was ignoring The Times' story.

Within two days after The Times story appeared, NPR had developed detailed guidelines for vetting on-air guests and looking for potential conflicts of interests that even guests may not consider.

"Generally, I think The New York Times piece was a good wake-up call for all of us," said Christopher Turpin, executive producer of All Things Considered. "After consultations, Ellen Weiss, vice president for News has already implemented good common sense changes in our procedures that balance aggressive vetting with the practicalities of booking guests on exceedingly tight deadlines. I'll certainly make clear that my staff get the message loud and clear."

The Pentagon too has re-thought its practice. On Friday, Pentagon officials suspended the special briefings for retired military media analysts.


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categories: Conflict of Interest

2:52 - April 28, 2008



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In my opinion, you are going too far. As a viewer, I was never fooled by retired military personnel or CIA agents because I have always believed that once a company man, always a company man. That should not prevent them from appearing on news shows to give their informed views of events. I have learned much from retired CIA agents and retired generals. I have heard some acknowledge on the air they called their active duty friends before appearing to get briefed on recent events. I don't see anything wrong with this. Do you exclude anyone else retired from their fields of expertise from appearing on NPR because they might have informed views? How silly this policy would be. You can ask on air if the retired general has recently been briefed by the Pentagon, or somehow clear that up in advance before proceeding with an interview, but a blanket ban is absolutely ridiculous and does nothing to inform the public.

Sent by edward | 2:51 PM ET | 04-29-2008

I don't have time today to read through your guidelines, but I hope they include identifying the political leanings of all think-tank experts and a requirement that they be identified in every interview. I am so tired of hearing someone from the American Enterprise Institute, for instance, being identified as from a non-partisan, non-profit. If they're identified at all.
It works both ways, of course, but it seems to me I heard one of the Kagans not too long ago opining about the succes of the surge or some such without ever informing listeners just who Kagan is and how deep his neocon roots are.

Sent by Julie McCormick | 3:10 PM ET | 04-29-2008

I do not want to question anyone's intentions. All are pure of heart.

Major General Smedley Butler would not be invited on NPR; you would say he is an activist, but somehow those that toe the line are not activists (even in your current article). When was the last time someone on NPR said the military should be smaller?

NPR has paid "military consultants." Does NPR have any consults paid to oppose the military industrial complex? If the military consultants are there to give us the skinny on the military operations, shouldn't you have military consultants from countries/groups the U.S. is fighting?

"Rhame works for a non-profit ...[, so he does not have any] glaring business conflicts." I know nothing about Rhame, but your logic is off. I think Wall Street is also a "non-profit." Our government is a "non-profit."

I am dense, but here is another instance of our government manipulating the American people, and the press is complicit again. You say we now see the issue, so everything is okay, but everything is not okay. Don't you see?

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 7:08 PM ET | 04-29-2008

It is ridiculous to believe that Scales and NPR think that he (Scales) can remain remotely objective having been sent to Iraq by Gen. Patraeus and the office of Secretary of Defense.

Plus, if you have "Military experts" to "explain" the war, then where are the international law experts, human rights experts, and peace activists? FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) collected data showing that the corporate media (NPR fits this category) had only 3 anti-war voices compared to over 300 non-war-questioning analysts.

The former NPR Ombudsperson Jeffrey Dvorkin told me on the phone that "The debate over the war's legality is over." First, there never was any debate aired in the traditional media, and second, that tells us that NPR considers the Nuremberg Principles to be irrelevant. If that is not supporting the Bush agenda then tell us what is.

This is why NPR is known as "National Pentagon Radio".

Sent by Paul J. Cunningham | 10:51 PM ET | 04-29-2008

So NPR was PAYING its pro-war cheerleaders.

Seems like paying retired tobacco executives to discuss the health effects of smoking.

I wonder how may opponents to the war NPR has paid as analysts? As a long time listener I think I know the answer, none.

NPR paid "analysts" who were part of an organized Pentagon pro-war propaganda effort, sweet. No conflict there.

Did Mr. Scales sign NPR's ethics statement?

The fact that FOX and NPR share the same standards on hiring right wing "analysts" doesn't surprise me.

Sent by Ron Gordon | 2:26 PM ET | 04-30-2008

My father served in and for the Air Force for nearly 40 years. He taught me well to be aware that the military does not encourage free speech. As the military saying goes, "We're here to defend democracy--not to practice it." Folks familiar with the military life are familiar with this, but many Americans might not be.

What is most disturbing, yet unsurprising, about this situation is that the remarkable connection of "Fox News" to this scandal. Unfortunately NPR does not appear to have realized the significance of this.

Most unfortunately, NPR, like Fox News, has decided that it is about 100 times more important to trumpet the Reverend Wright "story" again and again, while ignoring many far more important stories regarding the seemingly infinite number of continuing failures of the Bush Administration in the US, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Sent by RS | 6:38 PM ET | 04-30-2008

"Scales appeared on different NPR news shows -- a total of 36 times in 2003...."
"Since February 2003, he has been on NPR 67 times, most often (28 appearances) on All Things Considered (ATC)."
"Rhame has appeared on NPR news shows 48 times -- 43 of them in 2003."

And how many times did you have serious critics of the entire US policy toward Iraq? Or experts who were right about the facts from the start. It is ok to get the military view that these retired officers present, but what about Scott Ritter, Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky, Patrick Coburn, Robert Fisk, Juan Cole etc. Your coverage is heavily weighted toward active and former US government or military personnel.

Sent by MyTwords | 10:20 PM ET | 04-30-2008

"The idea that I can't think for myself is what I find so disturbing about The Times' piece," said Scales.

The first stage of non-repentance is non-denial denial.

Sent by Sven | 5:02 PM ET | 05-02-2008

I think a full disclosure, on air, would be helpful. And let us know about all the paid ANTI-war activists that NPR has used also.

People call you "Pentagon National Radio" for a reason!

Sent by Susan | 12:02 PM ET | 05-03-2008

Have you actually nor reported on the release of Sami Al-Haj from Gutmo? When the government accuses someone of a crime, you all repeating the administrations' accusations? Did I just overlook this on your search page?

Please report the news.

Sent by Andrew Hennessy | 11:49 AM ET | 05-04-2008

When will we see other NPR propaganda efforts discussed in this space? Since well before the Iraq war, so many NPR stories have sounded like blatant Pentagon P.R. puff-pieces. Stories like this beg the question: who at the NPR editorial offices decides how to cover and spin Pentagon business? Who determines the agenda and to what ends?

Sent by Benoit Balz | 11:10 PM ET | 05-06-2008

I don't remember a single attribution by peter galbraith as to any of his DOD benefactors when he appeared numerous times on npr programs before the war. Only after the war had begun did he reveal that he had been paid by the DOD to disseminate the horrors of saddam, and thus drum up sentiment for the war. But what is truly horrible is that npr has been so in-the-tank with the government that it is no longer considered credible. And any ombudsman who continues to make excuses for this behavior isn't doing npr any services.

Sent by larry, dfh | 5:16 PM ET | 05-07-2008

I am a former Marine and unlike certain high-level politicians and certainly some NPR listeners, I do not "loathe" but rather admire and respect our military.

However, I also know that "disclosing" conflicts of interest does not eliminate them.

Just as ABC's George Stephanopoulos has no business interviewing Hillary Clinton, for whose husband he once worked (and by extension in the White House, for her, too), NPR has no business using anyone in the pay and employ of the Pentagon, as an "independent analyst"...he is not.

There's no gray area here.

Sent by David W. Gaier | 5:45 PM ET | 05-07-2008

NPR failed to sufficiently assess the administration's claims justifying the unprovoked American on Iraq. I used to admire Scott Simon for example, but was nauseated by his giddy as a schoolgirl performance as an embed journalist with the troops in Iraq. Since then Scott has been unknowingly playing the straight man every Saturday for the much wiser and perceptive Daniel Schor. Thank God for Daniel Schor!

Much of NPR's interpretation of political news and foreign affairs over the past 6 years has been tinged with a right-wing bias, which I chalk up to "inside-the-beltway" group-think and insularity. As someone who prefers a more objective presentation of current events, I take this into account at pledge time.

Sent by Dean Scourtes | 1:58 PM ET | 05-08-2008

You don't need an Army Man in order to hear the bombs blow.

Sent by Jason Thompson | 12:57 PM ET | 05-09-2008

I linked into this space from another article. I just want to say that I stopped my financial support of NPR several years ago and tried to keep it to myself. Now in light of this discovering I will encourage others to do the same. I see no sense in supporting a breeding ground for new FOX News talent.

Sent by Chris Johnson | 8:00 PM ET | 05-09-2008

How much time on air did NPR allot to anti-Administration analysts as opposed to the "message amplifiers" NPR featured? Was the vast discrepancy (I was sentient at the time and can tell you without actual figures that the discrepancy was enormous) a conscious effort on the part of NPR to deliver the Administration's war message?

Sent by della Rovere | 4:30 PM ET | 05-13-2008

You state that "in the future NPR should always be transparent and identify him (Scales) as a defense consultant with Colgen." I think you could go one step further and identify him as someone who was outed in the Times article and identify him as one of the Administrations lick-spittle. Do that every time he is on the air and I'll keep listening.

This really is quite disappointing. You should be jumping away from him as far as possible. Don't you feel like someone tricked you?

Sent by Tom | 5:31 PM ET | 05-13-2008

When you make your next appeal for public support, will you be using your record paying Pentagon cheerleaders and suppressing antiwar commentary to indicate just how very, very different you are from the rest of the corporate media?

Sent by VLaszlo | 6:50 PM ET | 05-13-2008

I am joining the chorus of those disenchanted with NPR 'news' coverage. Examined objectively, NPR repeats the Bush administration's factually inaccurate claims incessantly without any counter-balancing viewpoints or critical analysis. You have essentially become a giant megaphone for whatever propaganda the administration wants disseminated. The Pentagon 'message multipliers' story is just one facet of what has gone wrong with NPR and why I stopped listening to and won't support public radio anymore.

Sent by Eric Growden | 4:20 PM ET | 05-14-2008

Anybody gullible enough to be shocked at this is simply too young or naive to be reporting to large audiences. It is certainly worth listening to these voices so long as the context is noted by the listeners (which I had presumed it was!). Non story (although why they get paid twice I have no idea). Another argument for the legitimization of formal state-owned media rather than blending it into msm.

Sent by Jakes Loverly | 8:55 AM ET | 05-16-2008

NPR has been an ardent supporter of this illegal/immoral war from the start. NPR helped to create the "liberal hawk" used to provide a fig leaf of "bi-partisanship".

NPR programming (starting with The World) is never critical of the lies used to bring the US into conflict with Iraq. I listen and listen and listen but never do I hear a voice that opposed this debacle on moral or legal grounds; only since the cake-walk failed to materialize has there been even the hint of criticism.

Sent by ed kriner | 10:54 AM ET | 05-19-2008

You continue to use the pentagon as an unchecked, unverified source. Your reports from Afghanistan and Iraq often merely repeat what a military spokesman says without effort to verify. The military is not a trustworthy source of accurate information.

Sent by Kevan Smith | 3:46 PM ET | 06-29-2008


Alicia Shepard

Alicia Shepard

NPR Ombudsman

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