By Jeff Cohen | In the fall of 2002, week after week, I argued vigorously against invading Iraq in debates televised on MSNBC. I used every possible argument that might sway mainstream viewers — no real threat, cost, instability. But as the war neared, my debates were terminated.
In my 2006 book Cable News Confidential, I explained why I lost my airtime:
“There was no room for me after MSNBC launched Countdown: Iraq — a daily one-hour show that seemed more keen on glamorizing a potential war than scrutinizing or debating it. Countdown: Iraq featured retired colonels and generals, sometimes resembling boys with war toys as they used props, maps and glitzy graphics to spin invasion scenarios.
“They reminded me of pumped-up ex-football players doing pre-game analysis and diagramming plays. It was excruciating to be sidelined at MSNBC, watching so many non-debates in which myth and misinformation were served up unchallenged.”
It was bad enough to be silenced. Much worse to see that these ex-generals — many working for military corporations — were never in debates, nor asked a tough question by an anchor. (I wasn’t allowed on MSNBC unless balanced by at least one truculent right-winger.)
Except for the brazenness and scope of the Pentagon spin program, I wasn’t shocked by the recent New York Times report exposing how the Pentagon junketed and coached the retired military brass into being “message-force multipliers” and “surrogates” for Donald Rumsfeld’s lethal propaganda.
The biggest villain here is not Rumsfeld nor the Pentagon. It’s the TV networks. In the land of the First Amendment, it was their choice to shut down debate and journalism.
No government agency forced MSNBC to repeatedly feature the hawkish generals unopposed. Or fire Phil Donahue. Or smear weapons expert Scott Ritter. Or blacklist former attorney general Ramsey Clark.
It was top NBC/MSNBC execs, not the Feds, who imposed a quota system on the Donahue staff requiring two pro-war guests if we booked one anti-war advocate — affirmative action for hawks.
I’m all for a Congressional investigation into the Pentagon’s Iraq propaganda operation — which included an active-duty general exhorting ex-military-turned-paid-pundits that “the strategic target remains our population.”
But I’m also for keeping the focus and onus on CNN, FOX, NBC, ABC, CBS, even NPR — who were partners in the Pentagon’s mission of “information dominance.”
And for us to see that American TV news remains so corrupt today that it has hardly mentioned the Times story on the Pentagon’s pundits, which was based on 8,000 pages of internal Pentagon documents acquired by a successful Times lawsuit.
It’s important to remember that at the same time corporate TV outlets voluntarily abandoned journalistic ethics in the run-up to Iraq, independent media boomed in audience by making totally different journalistic choices.
Programs like Democracy Now! featured genuine experts on Iraq who — what a shock! — got the facts right. Independent blogs and Web sites, propelled by war skepticism, began to soar.
As for the major TV networks, they were not hoodwinked by a Pentagon propaganda scheme. They were willingly complicit, and have been for decades.
As FAIR’s director, I began questioning top news executives years ago about their over-reliance on non-debate segments featuring former military brass. After the 1991 Gulf war, CNN and other networks realized that their use of ex-generals had helped the Pentagon dazzle and disinform the public about the conduct of the war.
CNN actually had me debate the issue of ex-military on TV with a retired U.S. Army colonel. Military analysts aren’t used to debates, and this one got heated:
Cohen: “You would never dream of covering the environment by bringing on expert after expert after expert who had all retired from environmental organizations after 20 or 30 years and were still loyal to those groups. You would never discuss the workplace or workers by bringing on expert after expert after expert who’d been in the labor movement and retired in good standing after 30 years. . . . When it comes to war and foreign policy, you bring on all the retired generals, retired secretaries of state.”
The Colonel (irritably): “What do you want, a tax auditor to come in and talk about military strategy?”
Cohen: “You hit it on the nail, Colonel. What you need besides the generals and the admirals who can talk about how missiles and bombs are dispatched, you need other experts. You need experts in human rights, you need medical experts, you need relief experts who know what it’s like to talk about bombs falling on people.”
Before the debate ended, I expressed my doubts that corporate media would ever quit their addiction to unreliable military sources:
“There’s this ritual, it’s a familiar pattern, a routine, where mainstream journalists, after the last war or intervention, say, ‘Boy, we got manipulated. We were taken. But next time, we’re going to be more skeptical.’ And then when the next time comes, it’s the same reporters interviewing the same experts, who buy the distortions from the Pentagon.”
Experts, Not Advocates?
A few years later, during the brutal U.S.-NATO bombing of Serbia, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed CNN vice-president and anchor Frank Sesno:
Goodman: “If you support the practice of putting ex-military men, generals, on the payroll to share their opinion during a time of war, would you also support putting peace activists on the payroll to give a different opinion in times of war, to be sitting there with the military generals, talking about why they feel that war is not appropriate?”
Sesno: “We bring the generals in because of their expertise in a particular area. We call them analysts. We don’t bring them in as advocates.”
It’s clear: War experts are neutral analysts; peace experts are advocates. Even when the Pentagon helps select and prep the network’s military analysts.
Shortly after the Iraq invasion, CNN’s news chief Eason Jordan acknowledged on-air that he’d run the names of potential analysts by the Pentagon: “We got a big thumbs-up on all of them. That was important.”
Of all the excruciating moments for me — after having been terminated by MSNBC along with Phil Donahue and others — the worst was watching retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, NBC’s top military analyst, repeatedly blustering for war on Iraq.
Undisclosed to viewers, the general was a member (along with Lieberman, McCain, Kristol and Perle) of the pro-invasion “Committee for the Liberation of Iraq.”
A leading figure in the Pentagon’s pundit corps, no one spewed more nonsense in such an authoritative voice than McCaffrey — for example, on the top-notch advanced planning for securing Iraq:
“I just got an update briefing from Secretary Rumsfeld and his team on what’s the aftermath of the fighting. And I was astonished at the complexity and dedication with which they’ve gone about thinking through this.”
After the invasion began, McCaffrey crowed on MSNBC: “Thank God for the Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle.”
No federal agency forced NBC and MSNBC to put McCaffrey on the air unopposed. No federal agency prevented those networks from telling viewers that the general sat on the boards of several military contactors, including one that made millions for doing God’s work on the Abrams and Bradley.
Genuine separation of press and state is one reason growing numbers of Americans are choosing independent media over corporate media.
And independent media don’t run embarrassing promos of the kind NBC was proudly airing in 2003:
“Showdown Iraq, and only NBC News has the experts. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, allied commander during the Gulf War. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, he was the most decorated four-star general in the Army. Gen. Wayne Downing, former special operations commander and White House advisor. Ambassador Richard Butler and former UN weapons inspector David Kay. Nobody has seen Iraq like they have. The experts. The best information from America’s most watched news organization, NBC News?”
Jeff Cohen is the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. His latest book is Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. He founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.