Not once, but twice in the last year, New York Times reporter David Barstow has written extensive front page stories about the conflicts of interest afflicting military
paid to appear on television news. Charles Kaiser of the Columbia Journalism Review explains why despite this reporting, the use of military experts remains unchanged, a true SNAFU.
BOB GARFIELD: Last spring, when New York Times reporter David Barstow wrote about the ubiquity on TV news of military experts with ties to the Pentagon and military contractors, he might have thought that exposing these conflicts of interest might possibly – end them? But nothing has changed nor has there been any on-air acknowledgement by the networks of a problem. [CLIP] BRIAN WILLIAMS: General, every time you come back from one of your trips, we get a three-ring binder containing your findings; that is to say, you've covered it so closely and analyzed it. How do you see the future of Iraq? GENERAL BARRY McCAFFREY: Well, objectively, the snapshot is extremely good. I mean, the violence is - [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: That’s retired Four-Star Army General Barry McCaffrey, still a paid expert on NBC News with Brian Williams.
On November 29th, The Times printed a 5,000-word followup by Barstow, focusing on McCaffrey. Among other things, Barstow reported that the general had used his TV pulpit to advocate continuing the war in Iraq, a position he stood to profit from because of his stake in a private contractor.
Charles Kaiser has been writing about the McCaffrey affair for The Columbia Journalism Review. Charlie, welcome back to the show. CHARLES KAISER: Thank you, nice to be here. BOB GARFIELD: Now Barstow, in his piece, did go to McCaffrey, and McCaffrey’s defense – and I hope I'm doing him justice here – is that he was an early and frequent critic of U.S. war policy, at least in the beginning, and particularly of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s approach to the war, and that if he criticized the war, you know, ipso facto, he couldn't have been in the pocket of the Pentagon or its contractors. Does that cut ice with you? CHARLES KAISER: Well no, because it’s really two different questions there. Is he in the pocket of the Pentagon or is he in the pocket of the contractors?
NBC has, in its only very narrow defense of using him, has focused entirely on the fact that he was a critic of Rumsfeld’s. He wasn't a critic, I don't think, of our involvement there. He was a critic of the way Rumsfeld was waging the war, as was almost every other sensible person around. BOB GARFIELD: In Barstow’s piece, he suggests that after McCaffrey’s early criticism of Rumsfeld and the way he was waging the war, they cut him off to access to top brass, and then he kind of came around to their way of thinking and got his access back. Why was that access important to McCaffrey? CHARLES KAISER: Well, two reasons, as Barstow’s piece makes clear. First of all, just by having this access, you get to know what kind of military equipment and what kind of consulting services the Pentagon is looking for at that particular moment.
Second of all, it gives you a chance to directly lobby individual officers about the value of the equipment McCaffrey was trying to get the Iraqis to buy. BOB GARFIELD: Now, the answer you just gave me essentially assumes that McCaffrey was a pig at the trough and that he was using his credential as an NBC commentator to get access with which to advance his personal financial interests.
But let's just say he behaved in a way that was above reproach and that he never abused the privilege of access with Pentagon brass for his own personal gain, okay? Is that itself a sufficient reason for NBC to use him as an independent commentator, especially without disclosure? CHARLES KAISER: No. Any sensible news executive who is aware of all of these conflicts, or just potential conflicts, would automatically decide this is not someone I want on my air. And that is the opposite of what NBC News has done up to and including ten days ago, when McCaffrey made his most recent appearance on NBC Nightly News, I think, talking about Afghanistan. BOB GARFIELD: And here’s where you enter into the fray. Tell me about what the network has said to you and others, with respect to the McCaffrey story. CHARLES KAISER: They told Barstow, we have clear policies in place to assure that the people who appear on our air have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest.
Now, months go by. Barstow comes back, does the story again about McCaffrey, and the Society for the Professional Journalists very sensibly decides, on the basis of what they've read twice in The New York Times, that they should call upon NBC to stop using McCaffrey. BOB GARFIELD: But NBC, instead, I guess, kind of attacked the Society of Professional Journalists for depending on the Times story as the sole basis for its complaint. CHARLES KAISER: Yeah, and they actually accused the Ethics Committee of coming to its conclusion without, quote, “seeking any information or facts from NBC News.” And I reported that statement, which NBC gave me yesterday, only to find out that, in fact, SPJ did go to NBC before [LAUGHS] making any statement. [BOB LAUGHS] They did ask for [LAUGHS] NBC’s opinion, and NBC ignored two emails and two phone calls requesting their comment. BOB GARFIELD: There is, on the NBC News website under, I guess, the biography of General McCaffrey, some listing of his board memberships but not necessarily his client list at his consulting firm. CHARLES KAISER: No, they haven't even done that much. What they've done is they have a link on the NBC site to McCaffrey’s site. [BOB LAUGHS] And they said to Barstow, since we have a link to his site and since his site lists all of his clients, we've disclosed this.
However, Barstow [LAUGHS], making the elementary move of going to McCaffrey’s site, discovered that, in fact, he does not list his clients on his own site. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you've been hammering this day by day in your blog. What’s your latest from NBC? CHARLES KAISER: The latest statement I got back from NBC was they hadn't actually lied to me yesterday when they attacked SPJ for not contacting them in advance because, in their view, SPJ had already made up their mind when they got contacted, and therefore there was no point in NBC responding in any way. BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha. [LAUGHS] [CHARLES KAISER LAUGHS]] An air-tight case. Charlie, thank you very much. CHARLES KAISER: Thanks a lot. BOB GARFIELD: Charlie Kaiser writes the Full Court Press blog for The Columbia Journalism Review. That’s CJR.org.
We called NBC News and it said it stood by its statement that the Society of Professional Journalists had, quote, “rushed to judgment” in a way NBC found, quote, “unfortunate and irresponsible.”
We also called General McCaffrey, whose spokesman said The New York Times piece was, quote, “largely innuendo,” and that, quote, “the reporter seemed bent on an agenda.” He added that the general is motivated by improving our national security wherever he has served in the public or private sectors.