On April 20, 2003, CNN Chief News Executive Eason Jordan shed light on the network’s selection of military analysts it had hired to interpret combat developments in the Iraq war. He told Howard Kurtz, host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources”:
I went to the Pentagon myself several times before the war started and met with important people there and said, for instance, at CNN, here are the generals we’re thinking of retaining to advise us on the air and off about the war, and we got a big thumbs-up on all of them.
Jordan’s admission of an important Pentagon role in the selection of the network’s analysts should have rung ethical alarm bells in newsrooms but received little public attention.
Five years to the day after Jordan’s comments, The New York Times published the results of a lengthy investigation revealing an extensive, secret Pentagon program to manipulate news media coverage of the war by co-opting military analysts such as those whom CNN’s top news executives so deferentially cleared with the Pentagon.
According to The Times, retired military officers were given scripted and one-sided tours of battle zones and the American prison at Guantanamo (commercial airfare courtesy of the Pentagon); they were given talking points — which some of the analysts privately suspected were false or misleading — to use in media commentaries; they were given unprecedented personal access to key Pentagon decision-makers, including Gen. David Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; they were also given access to, in one instance cited by The Times, editing assistance for an opinion piece.
Moreover, many analysts, unbeknownst to readers, viewers and listeners — and perhaps even to the news media that hired them for their military expertise — were lobbyists, executives, consultants or board members of defense industries whose commercial interests would be served both by the analysts pleasing upper-echelon Pentagon contacts and by putting a positive spin on the war or their own products and services. Two NBC analysts had founded the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which The Times called “an advocacy group created with White House encouragement in 2002 to help make the case for ousting Saddam Hussein.”
This minefield of conflicts, perceived and actual, was ignored in on-air descriptions of the analysts’ credentials.
The Times, based on numerous interviews and 8,000 pages of e-mails and other documents it sued to obtain, said the Pentagon program resulted from a conscious strategic decision to plant the administration’s message in news media, with the support and keen interest of Rumsfeld and the White House. One official told The Times that the program was “the main focus of the public relations push to construct a case for war.”
The Pentagon’s covert “message multipliers” blanketed the news media. A Nexis analysis by Media Matters found that since Jan. 1, 2002, just the 20 analysts named in the Times “appeared or were quoted as experts more than 4,500 times on ABC, ABC News Now, CBS, CBS Radio Network, NBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR.”
One critic faults The Times for vague collective characterizations and failure to substantiate that individual analysts and networks drank the Pentagon’s Kool-Aid — and one analyst used that metaphor to deny doing so. Nonetheless, some clearly imbibed, occasionally despite private misgivings. The paper quoted a retired colonel and Fox News analyst as asking the Pentagon in an e-mail, “Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay.”
The legality and propriety of the Pentagon’s domestic propaganda program is for others to decide or adjudicate. For journalists, the key ethical issue is that news organizations allowed the government to manipulate them without properly vetting for conflicts of interests — or disclosing whatever conflicts they uncovered.
Disturbingly, most network news programs, as of this writing, still haven’t reported on the Times’ story about their compromised sources. Kurtz, the Washington Post and CNN media critic, has called the post-disclosure coverage “pathetic.”
News groups that relied uncritically on military analysts ignored numerous obligations specified in SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Aside from the obvious past conflicts of interest, the code’s accountability section suggests a continuing responsibility to “clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct,” to “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”
News organizations that betrayed public trust by bestowing undeserved journalistic credibility on Pentagon messengers owe the public a full accounting of their analysts’ government, commercial and ideological associations. SPJ has called for “ethical autopsies on their own [past] coverage, explaining and analyzing how sources were selected, what perspectives they conveyed and to whom they were beholden.”
If The Times could do such an accounting for every suspect story by reporter Jayson Blair, then the news media can do no less for stories far more consequential to our country’s future than any written by Blair.