For some time now, MSNBC has been running commercials touting their election coverage team's commitment to providing information that better enables Americans to make informed choices at the voting booth. But in context of the unfolding Pentagon TV war analysts scandal, one of these promos (which I believe is new) stood out for its particular hypocrisy.
To a melodramatic background score that's one part patriotic sentimentality (scene in Mel Gibson movie after character's army triumphs), one part childhood wonder (kids riding bikes in the sky to silhouette of the moon in E.T.), and one part lovers reuniting after a long separation (archetypal open-armed sprint across verdant meadow), this is the TV promo's content:
TEXT GRAPHIC: Decision 2008
TEXT GRAPHIC: Why Do People Care About Politics?
IMAGE: "VOTE HERE" sign with people standing in line behind it.
BRIAN WILLIAMS VOICEOVER: This is a participatory democracy.
TEXT GRAPHIC: Know
IMAGE: Black and white shot of people voting in the foreground; full-color American flag hanging prominently in the background.
BRIAN WILLIAMS VOICEOVER: I think you owe it to your democracy to know as much as you can about what's going on.
IMAGE: Old man (again in black and white), holding an American flag (again in full color) and seated on a bench, is gazing out toward the New York harbor.
TEXT GRAPHIC: That's Why You Care
TEXT GRAPHIC: That's Why We Cover It
IMAGE: Brian Williams' face, then the major faces of MSNBC election coverage.
TEXT GRAPHIC: MSNBC Decision 2008
TEXT GRAPHIC: MSNBC The Place for Politics
To this day, however, Brian Williams and MSNBC, along with CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS and NBC, have failed to respond to a PBS NewsHour request for an interview about The New York Times exposé, which revealed ex-generals-turned-TV war analysts, shilling directly for the Pentagon, appeared regularly on their programs. (Yesterday, Media Matters published a study that found "since January 1, 2002, the analysts named in the Times article -- many identified as having ties to the defense industry -- collectively 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, CNBC, and NPR.")
Williams, who in that MSNBC promo says, "This is a participatory democracy" in which "you owe it to your democracy to know as much as you can about what's going on," has, along with his network colleagues, prevented millions of people from knowing what's gone on in the run-up to the war in Iraq and over the course of the occupation. Williams champions our participatory democracy in MSNBC's ad yet fails to share with his viewers any information about what President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, presciently predicted would be the single greatest threat to our democracy - the "military-industrial complex."
On January 17, 1961, Eisenhower - a Republican president, former lifetime military man and war hero - explicitly cautioned: "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."
Yet here's Williams only acknowledgment of his network's involvement with these Pentagon-shilling TV war generals - not from behind his anchor desk but on his NBC Nightly News blog The Daily Nightly (April 29, 2008):
A few of you correctly noted I’ve yet to respond to the recent Times front-page article on the military analysts employed by the television networks, including this one.
I read the article with great interest. I've worked with two men since I've had this job -- both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals -- Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I'm sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.
I made four trips to Iraq with Wayne. We were together, in close quarters, for over two months at the start of the war and survived at least one harrowing adventure. I won't attempt to respond on Wayne’s behalf, and I know Barry McCaffrey has his own response to the article.
All I can say is this: these two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq. If you've had any exposure to retired officers of that rank (and we've not had any five-star Generals in the modern era) then you know: these men are passionate patriots. In my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers. I knew full well whenever either man went on a fact-finding mission or went for high-level briefings. They never came back spun, and never attempted a conversion. They are warriors-turned-analysts, not lobbyists or politicians.
As far as Wayne was concerned, he was an NBC News employee, and while he would never do anything to diminish his decades of extraordinary service (nor would we expect him to), we all marveled at how quickly he took to the notion of being a journalist -- taking a good, hard, critical look at the Pentagon as an entity, the way "analysts" do.
And about General McCaffrey: I was among those who fielded complaint calls -- from the Pentagon, from the White House, from the highest levels of the Administration -- protesting his harsh criticism of the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the war effort. General Downing and I (during some unscheduled "down time" in the Iraqi desert at the height of the invasion) watched the U.S. military supply line in the distance, driving through the darkness, undefended. Because he viewed it as a result of fighting the "war on the cheap," he was infuriated by it, and said so. [...]
I think it's fair, of course, to hold us to account for the military analysts we employ, inasmuch as we can ever fully know the "off-duty" actions of anyone employed on an "of counsel" basis by us. I can only account for the men I know best. 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 as Salon's Glenn Greenwald noted at the time:
The essence of Williams' response: he did absolutely nothing wrong. Nor did any of the military analysts used by NBC News. Nor did his network. These are all honest, patriotic men whose integrity is beyond reproach. [...]
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. [...]
Williams cited McCaffrey and Downing as proof that they did nothing wrong, and insists that his and their credibility simply ought to be beyond reproach because they are good, patriotic men. But those two individuals in particular had all kinds of ties to the Government, the defense industry, and ideological groups which gave them vested interests in vigorous pro-war advocacy -- ties which NBC News knew about and failed to disclose, all while presenting these individuals to their millions of viewers as "independent." Is there anyone who thinks that behavior is anything other than deeply corrupt?
Greenwald's exhaustive post is a must-read. He documents, among other relevant evidence, on-air exchanges between Williams and McCaffrey; McCaffrey and Downing's membership in The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a lobbying group formed to promote the invasion of Iraq, which consisted of such neocon luminaries as William Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, Bernard Lewis and former CIA chief James Woolsey; as defense industry board members, McCaffrey and Downing's vested interest in not only selling the war but even some of their ""harsh criticism of the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the war effort" - not enough troops on the ground, i.e., more troops = more weapons/contracts = higher defense industry profits.
McCaffrey and Downing's criticisms, of course, never included the decision to invade Iraq. They never critiqued how this war needlessly led to a massive loss of life and diverted attention away from Afghanistan.
The bottom line: as Greenwald also suggests, Williams' defense of these war analysts and his interactions with them and his network only raise more questions. That Williams believes there's nothing compromising about sharing "a close friendship" with these two "independent" analysts, to the degree that he actually cites these bonds as evidence no wrongdoing occurred, turns the logic of what constitutes ethical journalism on its head. Williams is either tone deaf to the absurdity of such a defense or feels entitled as Brian Williams the News Star to do what he pleases. To forge ahead blithely, as his newscast's tagline boasts, "Reporting America's Story."
As Williams said, "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."
Well, of course he does. They're his buddies, it's his network, and he's a well-paid anchorman who's also the managing news editor - what makes it to the air is largely his call. In light of this Pentagon propaganda program, Williams now has two choices: 1) allow his news team to cover and further investigate this story, revealing the compromised analysis of McCaffrey, Downing and any other war analysts who shilled on NBC News, followed by an on-air apology by Williams to his viewers and an explanation of measures that will be, or have been, implemented to avoid such occurrences in the future; or 2) remain silent, proffering only that grossly insufficient defense on his blog, and confirm his role, along with NBC News, as a willful or willfully ignorant, propaganda tool of the Bush administration.
A fair question to ask Brian Williams today is: Do you want to be known as a journalist or a propagandist? It's his choice. As Williams says in the MSNBC promo, "This is a participatory democracy." We're asking him to participate, as a journalist and as a citizen. If Brian Williams thinks "you owe it to your democracy to know as much as you can about what's going on," then surely he owes it to our democracy to tell us the truth.
UPDATE: I received an email from Rachel Sklar over Huffington Post pointing out that I should note the Media Matters disclaimer at the end of its report. Originally, since I only alluded to the report in a one-sentence parenthetical, I figured readers would see the disclaimer once they clicked on the link and read the report. But for the purpose of due diligence, just in case some readers don't, I think Sklar is right. The Media Matters Pentagon analysts study concludes:
In conducting this study, Media Matters did not assess whether individual instances of commentary -- or the analysts themselves -- were supportive of administration policy.
Sklar also notes, "There are a whole bunch, named and unnamed [war analysts], who really DID carry the water. But the 20 people named were not all shown by the Times to have been biased." This, too, is true. Additionally, Sklar has some specific issues with the way the NYT handled its expose on the Pentagon war analysts scandal, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. But it's definitely worth reading.
One key disagreement I have with Sklar's piece is her defense of McCaffrey, about which I wrote (I recommend you check out her post before reading the following):
One point you might want to revisit, however, is your defense of McCaffrey's integrity on this matter. Yes, he criticized Rumsfeld; he obviously had no respect for Rumsfeld's execution of the war. But McCaffrey pushed the administration's war in Iraq, both pre- and post-invasion. He not only, as you cite as well, sold this unnecessary war to the American public as a member of the Committee for Liberation of was accomplished?), but also supported the Bush administration's stated goals and achievements in Iraq long after. A good example of this is actually found in that WSJ op-ed you cite, which is subtitled "We won't win in Iraq unless we face reality." McCaffrey concludes by saying, "The president acted with political and moral courage to strike down Saddam while we had the window of opportunity. Our counterterrorist deterrent posture has been enormously strengthened. The question is whether we have the political will to carry out the required political, economic and security operations in both Iraq and in the next 36 months. Now is the time for resolute leadership."(it's not clear how its disbandment in 2003 wipes that slate clean - didn't the group disband because its mission
As a military man, McCaffrey obviously took issue with the civilian leadership of Rumsfeld, but in no way has his criticism of Rumsfeld proved to have deterred McCaffrey from contributing to and selling the Pentagon's and this administration's overall mission in Iraq. (Similarly, Rumsfeld's ouster has had little impact on their overall game plan: to remain in Iraq, to "win." In fact, the only substantive change occurring post-Rumsfeld, the "surge" - from which McCaffrey stood to benefit monetarily through his defense industry ties - was, politically, one of the only ways left to continue selling the idea of "winning the war" to the American public.) And there are ample examples of McCaffrey doing this.