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Unethical Practices by Ex-General and NBC News


The New York Times’ David Barstow has an astonishing piece in today’s paper, “One Man’s Military-Industrial-Media Complex,” about former “drug czar” and retired general Barry McCaffrey, one of many retired military people working as supposedly independent analysts for various news organizations but who are anything but independent.

The story’s biggest surprise — perhaps it should not be — is NBC News’ defense of its failure to require disclosure of McCaffrey’s rampant conflicts of interest. To call the network’s defense pathetic is to give it more weight than it deserves. Here’s the relevant quote, which is breathtaking in its arrogance:

The president of NBC News, Steve Capus, said in an interview that General McCaffrey was a man of honor and achievement who would never let business obligations color his analysis for NBC. He described General McCaffrey as an “independent voice” who had courageously challenged Mr. Rumsfeld, adding, “There’s no open microphone that begins with the Pentagon and ends with him going out over our airwaves.”

McCaffrey has been occasionally critical of Rumsfeld, yes. But that is absolutely not the point here. The issues are his wide-ranging, flagrant and undisclosed conflicts of interest and NBC’s indifference to integrity.

Here’s Spencer Ackerman’s appropriate characterization of this rancid system:

But the scope of McCaffrey’s hustle is really breathtaking. Barstow demonstrates that many, if not most, of the pronouncements he made on TV about the wars benefited one or another defense contractor who employed him. That’s the way the scheme worked: Company hires retired general to use his connections to its benefit. Retired general accepts special grants of access from the office of the secretary of defense that benefit both his TV career and his consulting career. Retired general proclaims on TV things that benefit both the secretary and the company — or, when circumstances necessitate, the company at the expense of the secretary. TV viewer, looking for informed analysis of confusing wars, is unaware of any of this. Welcome to the new military-media-industrial complex.

Bottom line: McCaffrey is venal, greedy and unethical. But as a news organization, NBC is downright corrupt.

MORE: Salon’s Glenn Greenwald notes NBC’s “ongoing disgrace,” citing reporting on these issue years ago in the Nation magazine, the NY Times’ expose from last spring and his own reporting. His characterization is entirely correct.

Final word to Matthew Yglesias:

But rather than focusing on McCaffrey and his issues, it’s worth contemplating the breathtaking lack of integrity on display from the television networks here. As I said, Barstow published a piece on this back in April. None of the TV networks addressed the issue he raised in anything resembling a serious manner. And, again, we now have NBC News caught flat-out in the midst of corruption, deceiving their viewers. And NBC News isn’t sorry. They’re not apologizing. They’re not ashamed. Because they’re beyond shame. They never had a reputation for honor, so they don’t even see this sort of thing as damaging.

8 Comments on “Unethical Practices by Ex-General and NBC News”

  1. #1 Robert Holman
    on Nov 30th, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    This is an outrage of gigantic proportions given the financial and human costs of this tragedy. There are are clearly those who profit from war, but to hide the conflicts of interest behind so-called independent news and for “what’s good for the country” mantra only makes it more sickening. This arm-chair general is nothing more than a war profiteer who could care less what the consequences are so long as he makes a buck.
    What kind of country do we live in anyway to continuously allow this lie to go on?

  2. #2 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 30th, 2008 at 5:42 pm


    “NBC executives asserted that the general’s relationships with military contractors are indirectly disclosed through NBC’s Web site, where General McCaffrey’s biography now features a link to his consulting firm’s Web site.”

    There is indeed a biography web page off of this pagethis page listing their 8 contributing experts, but I can’t find how it is linked from the MSNBC or Nightly News home pages. CBS News lists all correspondents, anchors, and executive producers, but I can’t find a listing of their consultants.

    The article points out that James A. Marks is a CNN military analyst. But I can’t find any bio of him on their site, or any bio page whatsoever (CNN does list anchors & reporters).

    Shouldn’t media transparency advocates push for this to be a higher priority by the networks?

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on Nov 30th, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Jon, you bet this should be on the agenda of transparency advocates. It’s shameful to see media behaving this way.

  4. #4 Rita J. King
    on Nov 30th, 2008 at 8:09 pm

    Thanks for posting this, Dan. I’ve been following you on Twitter (I tweet as eurekadejavu). We met briefly last December after my panel at the Global Knowledge Partnership in Kuala Lumpur.

    Welcome to the *new* military-media-industrial complex, Spencer Ackerman writes?

    I wrote “Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast,” in 2006, and it was the third in an investigative series that explored war profiteering in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    I wonder if they’ve assigned a journalist to cover the bailout yet as the fourth in the installment.

  5. #5 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 30th, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    We should push for a template for media websites to use to list reports, experts, sources. Looking at Media Matters, SourceWatch, FactCheck, I don’t see anyone is pushing for this.

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 1st, 2008 at 9:39 am

    “indirectly disclosed through NBC’s Web site”


    What the General should do is proclaim that he is a citizen journalist, and it’s a brave new world where the strictures of the curmudgeon dinosaur priests no longer apply. It’s up to YOU-YES-YOU to decide whether he’s trustworthy, and the reader is just going to have to make up his or her own mind in the New Media world instead of relying on – gasp – gatekeepers to enforce their antediluvian concepts how things should work.

    [This is sarcasm, in case anyone takes it seriously]

  7. #7 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 1st, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Seth, in all seriousness, posted a lengthy response to the NYT article, but neglected to list all clients and contacts, so it’s very difficult for the average person to judge.

  8. #8 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 2nd, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Jon, my concern is that the way the “disclosure” issue is framed, it often turns into an arcane formula bereft of substance to the average person.

    That’s why it’s so funny they brought up the website. Even the most detailed disclosure description on a website would only be seen by a tiny fraction of the audience, and good luck figuring out what it means.