On April 20, 2008, The New York Times ran an article by David Barstow that suggested that military analysts who appear on television are dupes or agents of the Department of Defense. The size and placement of the piece is a good indication of the value that the newspaper placed on it: on Sunday, front page, above the fold, with a lead photo that spread across more than half the width of the paper. There were more column-inches devoted to this article than to any other piece in recent memory. And it would have been an important piece of investigative work, if there had been any genuine substance to it.
Barstow reveals that some retired officers who appear on the air also serve on boards of companies that do business with the government. The implication here is that there is a causative relationship between the two, that military analysts are supportive of the Defense Department because their companies receive government contracts. But there is no causation demonstrated, and those who understand the rudiments of logic can easily spot the faulty syllogism that is the centerpiece of Barstow’s implied accusation.
He also reveals that retired military officers who appear on the air get information from the Pentagon, and this is purported to color their opinions and make their views more favorable to the Defense Department. The implied causation suffers from the same flawed logic as suggesting that the Pentagon is effectively paying off the analysts by awarding contracts. There isn’t any proof offered here, either. Furthermore, journalists receive some of their information about the Defense Department from exactly the same place as other on-air analysts do: the Defense Department.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, The New York Times acquired transcripts of meetings between Pentagon officials, including Rumsfeld and others, ostensibly some of the on-air analysts Barstow implies are in the tank for the Department of Defense. The transcripts include discussion of ways to disseminate the Defense Department’s message about the war in Iraq. The problem is that the article fails to identify the participants, and one can’t determine if they are the analysts who are named in the article, other analysts who are not named, or neither of those.
In fact, because we don’t know who they are, and because there is no on-air evidence of analysts’ promulgating the views in the transcripts, citing the Pentagon meetings is, at best, gratuitous and misleading.
I attended one of the briefings reported in the piece and found it unenlightening and with no discussion about ways to influence the public perception of the war. And as the other NBC analysts do, and like most journalists including Mr. Barstow, I glean most of my information through investigation, by speaking to troops in and out of combat, academicians, officials and other analysts. The record shows that like others, I have actually been quite outspoken and critical of the Bush administration’s use of the military instrument. To suggest that all analysts are on the take or are in thrall to the Pentagon is false, the kind of amateur journalism one does not expect to appear in the responsible press.
So, as a piece of investigatory journalism, the article is quite bereft of substance. But perhaps the most unpalatable thing about the piece is its presentation. It is the lead article and is featured with a photo composed of nine on-air head shots of military analysts. Four of the
nine are NBC assets, leaving one with the impression that the article exposes NBC as the most egregious violator of journalistic professionalism, something impossible to glean from the body of the piece.
There is something else about the article that would be risible if it were not so disingenuous and distasteful. There is something of a condescending attitude about the piece, as if The New York Times is scolding the cable and broadcast media for not vetting the people they present as analysts. There is an unpleasant sanctimoniousness in drawing readers to the conclusion that cable news has low standards when contrasted with the print medium, especially when the point is made by the same organization that brought you Judith Miller and Jayson Blair.
Jacobs is an NBC News military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. His name or photo was not mentioned or shown in the New York Times piece.has a government contract -- "I collect a pension from the Army."
He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.