On Sunday, the New York Times featured a blockbuster story, "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand."
In the article, totaling more than 7,000 words, reporter David Barstow wrote of an effort by the U.S. Defense Department to use retired military brass as members of an "information apparatus . . . in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance."
Barstow based his story on thousands of Pentagon documents, including internal memos and e-mail messages. He reports that retired generals were given free trips, briefings and access to top Pentagon officials. The generals then delivered analysis of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for major broadcast networks, including, in one case, National Public Radio. Many of those same generals had financial interests in the defense industry — interests that depended on good relationships with the Pentagon, but that weren't always disclosed.
It's the kind of story that often receives major play on broadcast and cable. But Scott Collins, TV columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writes that he has seen a notable lack of coverage. Collins says that's primarily because networks and channels are reluctant to give attention to a story they're involved in. He also thinks the New York Times released the article into a crowded news cycle, with Pope Benedict XVI visiting the U.S. and a presidential primary looming in Pennsylvania.
But Collins argues that another reason the Times' scoop all but died on the vine is that the public has grown innured to this type of story. He says that under President George Bush, the nation has learned of White House funding for a newspaper columnist who backed official policy and seen television stations air government-produced "news" segments. By comparison, the Times' story was far more complex.
"People have gotten accustomed — I think especially during the Bush years — to government really erasing the distinctions between government and journalism," Collins says. He continues, "Everyone assumes that these retired generals have Pentagon ties. Of course they do. You couldn't be a retired general and not have Pentagon ties. So that the real news here was that the Pentagon . . . was organizing this campaign at the highest levels, and it was a highly organized initiative."