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Being a TV Expert Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Jeff Cohen

Watching the nightly news last night was a hair-pulling experience -- even more than normal.

The top story on national TV was the Senate testimony of the top military brass, who basically admitted that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had brought on a disaster.

It wasn’t the news that prompted my hair-pulling (who doesn’t know Iraq’s a disaster?) -- but the way it was reported. On NBC News, viewers saw Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testify that he’d “never painted a rosy picture” of Iraq and that he hadn’t been “overly optimistic.” And NBC allowed the claim to go unrebutted.

Somehow NBC couldn’t dig up the quotes of Rumsfeld saying that he doubted the war would last six months (Feb. 7, 2003) or that US troops “would be welcomed” in Iraq (Feb. 20, 2003) or that “we know where [the WMD] are” (March 30, 2003). The quotes were easily dug up by ThinkProgress.

For me, there was something worse than allowing Rumsfeld’s doozy to go unrebutted. It was who NBC News turned to for expert analysis of the testimony: retired General Barry McCaffrey.

I admit that the issue is personal. McCaffrey and I were once TV pundits together -- working for the same boss: NBC/General Electric.

In the months before the invasion of Iraq, I worked at NBC’s cable news channel, MSNBC, as an on-air commentator and as senior producer on its most watched show, “Donahue.” That show was terminated for political reasons three weeks before the war. I tell the whole story in my upcoming book,Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.

Unlike McCaffrey (and Rumsfeld), I warned over and over on the air that invading Iraq would lead to disaster, a quagmire, and hatred for our country in the Muslim world. I repeatedly questioned the evidence that Iraq was an imminent threat. So did my colleague Phil Donahue, in primetime. We were on the money. And now we’re off the air.

But TV “experts” like Gen. McCaffrey, who echoed White House claims of an Iraqi threat and cheered our country into the war, are still on the air. And they never have to say they’re sorry.

On MSNBC two months before the war, McCaffrey warned that Iraq possessed “thousands of gallons of mustard agents, serin, nerve agent VX still in Iraq.”

His prewar commentary left viewers ill-prepared for what would follow a U.S. invasion. Nowadays, he’s no Rumsfeld booster -- but McCaffrey was upbeat when it mattered, weeks before the war: “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: humanitarian aid, find the weapons of mass destruction, protect the population, jump-start an Iraqi free media. So a lot of energy has gone into this.”

During the invasion, McCaffrey crowed, “Thank God for the Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle.” Unknown to MSNBC viewers, the General sat on the boards of several military contracting corporations -- including IDT, which pocketed millions for doing God’s work on the Abrams and Bradley.

Last year, McCaffrey was still standing tough on NBC Nightly News, opposing a timetable for withdrawal.

At yesterday’s hearing, Senator Hillary Clinton made a big show of holding Rumsfeld accountable for a war she authorized and has vociferously supported. She’s calling on Rumsfeld to resign. That’s a good idea.

And if voters want to hold Sen. Clinton accountable for her strong support of the Iraq war, they can vote her out of office as early as September’s primary.

But how do we hold NBC and MSNBC and McCaffrey accountable? Too bad there aren’t term limits for TV pundits and “experts.” For getting such a huge story so totally wrong, one might expect an apology. Don’t hold your breath.

As I learned when I worked inside the corporate media beast, there’s one obvious solution for news consumers: embrace and build independent media that are not in the clutches of the conglomerates.


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Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen

Jeff Cohen is an activist and author. Cohen was an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media" - and a co-founder of the online action group, www.RootsAction.org. His website is jeffcohen.org.

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