Critic: Networks Let Pentagon-Press Scoop Wither The New York Times published a blockbuster article about a Pentagon program to manage its media message through close ties to retired generals. Now a television critic looks at why a major story had so little impact.
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Critic: Networks Let Pentagon-Press Scoop Wither

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Critic: Networks Let Pentagon-Press Scoop Wither

Critic: Networks Let Pentagon-Press Scoop Wither

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Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We are on digital, FM, Sirius Satellite Radio, and of course we are online at I'm Rachel Martin.


And I'm Mike Pesca. Last Sunday the New York Times lead story was entitled "Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand." In it the Times the documented - well, I'll read to you what in journalism is called the nut graph.

Quote, "Hidden behind the appearance of objectivity is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts," meaning retired military brass, "in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance," end quote. The program was the Pentagon's efforts to reach out to former officers turned commentators through briefings, free trips, and special access to top officials.

One former Green Beret said he was made to feel like a puppet by the Pentagon. Another said they were hosed. A third said the Pentagon's private briefings to the military men turned TV and radio analysts amounted to a snow job. These former officials frequently had ties to military contractors, which were not disclosed by the broadcast outlets on which they appeared.

NPR did employ one retired Army general, Robert Scales, named in the Times report. Yesterday, NPR's managing editor for news, Brian Duffy, was questioned about that relationship on NPR's Talk of the Nation.

(Soundbite of NPR show Talk of the Nation)

BRIAN DUFFY: General Scales was retained by NPR in February of 2003, and remained under contract with us for approximately a year as a distinguished general staff officer, and we used him to talk about maneuver tactics, talk about strategy, talk about the geography of the war, and how the war was being prosecuted.

PESCA: Duffy added that it is NPR's procedure to vet all contributors for outside business dealings that could be conflicts of interests, and while NPR did not know that General Scales did business with military contractors, the network has thoroughly reviewed his on-air comments, and found nothing that could be deemed to have been influenced by his business affiliations.

And Duffy said, NPR News has taken another look at its booking policies and practices to make sure that all of its shows follow the rules. Up until now that Talk of the Nation segment has been NPR's only coverage of the incident. As of yesterday the broadcast networks had done precisely zero stories on this topic. And on cable news it has been discussed only once on MSNBC by Keith Olbermann, and four times on CNN, according to a Nexis search.

Emails to all the broadcast networks sent out by the Bryant Park Project have not been returned. As a baseline for comparison, in 2005 conservative commentator Armstrong Williams was revealed to have been paid by the Department of Education to advocate for No Child Left Behind in his syndicated column. All of the broadcast networks reported on this story.

ABC and NBC four times, it was mentioned on MSNBC eight times, on CNN 19 times, according to a Nexis search. The question is why has the media not been following up on the stories of the TV generals? I talked to Scott Collins, TV columnist for the LA Times, who has been watching the coverage or lack thereof.

Mr. SCOTT COLLINS (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): I was watching on Sunday to see what the television media did with the story, and I did see that CNN had a small discussion about the story on one of their panels, but the panel was really about the Pennsylvania primary. And then on the Sunday morning news talk shows, the story got ignored. And then we've seen online there's been a little bit more pickup of this, but really not very intense.

PESCA: But in terms of news holes this broke during the Pope's last day of his U.S. visit, and two days later, which is to say yesterday, was the Pennsylvania primary. So, it could have just been unfortunate in terms of trying to get it placed on networks, in terms of all the other news that was out there to choose from.

Mr. COLLINS: Right. Well, that's absolutely true. The Pope's visit was wall-to-wall coverage. I know on CNN on Sunday, I mean, that was what they were talking about all the time. I do think that there was an issue of timing with the New York Times piece. You know, I'm not privy to these decisions that the editors were making. I think probably in retrospect it would have helped them to have held the story at least a week on a less news cluttered weekend, but, you know, then ran it when they ran it.

PESCA: What about the blogs? They usually - there's, you know, unlimited space on the blogosphere, and couldn't a few bloggers have spent some time on this story?

Mr. COLLINS: I suspect that for a lot of Americans they had kind of a "so what" reaction to this. People have gotten accustomed, I think especially during the Bush years, to government really erasing the distinctions between the government and journalism.

PESCA: Well, there's also the case of Jeff Gannon, the falsely credentialed quasi-reporter. There was the case of the video news releases that were being produced by the government, Armstrong Williams, those all got played, those all got really chewed over on the blogosphere, and is it that we weren't cynical than, but we just got cynical after all those things?

Mr. COLLINS: Those were clear cases of deception. In this particular case, in the case covered by the New York Times Pentagon story, there really wasn't a clear-cut case of deception. I mean, yes, these retired generals were receiving classified information they shouldn't have been receiving.

And yes, they were not being forthcoming about their ties to military contractor clients, that's all true. But, that's a much less clear-cut case of deception than in the Gannon, or the Armstrong Williams, or the video news service examples that you mentioned.

PESCA: So, in your...

Mr. COLLINS: There wasn't this issue of clear-cut deception, and you actually had to go kind of well into the story before what you realized - you know, 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, the real news here was that the Pentagon under the auspices of Rumsfeld, and under the auspices we assume of people, you know, at the White House, the Pentagon was organizing this campaign at the highest levels, and it was a highly organized initiative. That's really what the news was, and when you got to that - when you got to that nut in it, it didn't have the hurricane force, oh wow, that I think is often needed to really just set the blogosphere on fire.

PESCA: So, we got the fact that there's no real smoking gun, we've got the fact that there was a lot of other news to choose from, and we got the fact that the media itself was on the chopping block, and your point is all three of those things add up to what we're seeing now, which is not much.

Mr. COLLINS: Right. Right. And I think especially, you know, you can't discount that issue of the networks. They buried it. And if you're - if we're going to look around for culprits for why this thing didn't get - and I think this was a pretty darn well reported story, and if we're looking for culprits of why this didn't get more pickup, I think you've got to start with the news network.

PESCA: Yeah, and NPR is in there by the way too because we did no reporting on it, and one of the generals that we've had on as a consultant was named in the story.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, there you go.

PESCA: Scott Collins, TV columnist for the LA Times. Thanks very much, Scott.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you.

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