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NBC and McCaffrey's coordinated responses to the NYT story

Glenn Greenwald

Following up on yesterday's post regarding NBC News' suppression of the "military analyst" scandal and its ongoing reliance on the deeply conflicted Barry McCaffrey:  I have obtained, from a very trustworthy source, emails sent last week between NBC News executives and McCaffrey (which cc:d Brian Williams), reflecting the extensive collaboration between NBC and McCaffrey to formulate a coordinated response to David Barstow's story.  The emails are re-printed here.  

Rather than honestly investigate the numerous facts which Barstow uncovered about McCaffery's severe conflicts, NBC instead is clearly in self-protective mode, working in tandem with McCaffrey to create justifications for what they have done.  As these emails reflect, both this weekend's story about McCaffrey and the earlier NYT story in April have caused NBC News to expend substantial amounts of time, effort and resources trying to manage the P.R. aspects of this story. 

But remarkably, this "news organization" has still not uttered a peep to its viewers about these stories; has not reported on any of the indisputably newsworthy events surrounding the Pentagon's "military analyst" program; and continues to present McCaffrey to its viewers as an objective source without disclosing any of the multiple connections and interests he has that would lead any reasonable person to question his objectivity.

Perhaps most notable of all is how plainly dishonest the NBC response to Barstow is -- a response which, unsurprisingly (given their coordination) is tracked by the response posted on McCaffrey's website and by his hired P.R. agent, Robert Weiner, who is pasting a defense of McCaffrey in various places on the Internet (including my comment section yesterday) without identifying himself as such.  As their only defense to these accusations, both NBC and McCaffrey are repeatedly emphasizing that McCaffrey criticized the Bush administration and Donald Rumsfeld's prosecution of the Iraq War, as though that proves that McCaffrey's NBC commentary was independent and honest and not influenced by his numerous business connections to defense contractors.

Both NBC and McCaffrey are either incapable of understanding, or are deliberately ignoring, the central point:  in those instances where McCaffrey criticized Rumsfeld for his war strategy, it was to criticize him for spending insufficient amounts of money on the war, or for refusing to pursue strategies that would have directly benefited the numerous companies with which McCaffrey is associated. 

McCaffrey's criticism of Bush's war management doesn't disprove accusations that he was deeply conflicted when appearing as an NBC "analyst"; to the contrary, the criticisms he voiced constitute some of the most compelling evidence proving that McCaffrey should never have been on NBC -- and still should not be.  As I documented back in late April about McCaffrey's supposed status as a "war critic":

It's true, as [Brian] Williams points out as though it is exculpatory, that -- like Bill Kristol and plenty of other hard-core war supporters -- McCaffrey wanted more U.S. troops in Iraq. He even signed a 2005 letter from PNAC -- along with the likes of Kristol, the mighty Kagan Brothers, Max Boot, Frank Gaffney, Michael O'Hanlon and Peter Beinart -- demanding that more troops be deployed to Iraq (the Kagans, O'Hanlon and Beinart -- despite their relative youth -- were all unavailable for duty).

It really ought to go without saying by now that advocating more troops for the War hardly made one a "war critic" nor did it demonstrate independence from the Bush administration's propaganda campaign for the War. To the contrary, the fact that both McCaffrey and Downing had financial ties to the defense industry which would stand to profit from policies entailing more defense spending further calls into question their independence, rather than resolves those questions.

The April, 2003 Nation article -- which long ago put NBC News on specific notice about the glaring conflicts precluding McCaffrey's objectivity -- made this point explicitly:

McCaffrey has recently emerged as the most outspoken military critic of Rumsfeld's approach to the war, but his primary complaint is that "armor and artillery don't count" enough. In McCaffrey's recent MSNBC commentary, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "Thank God for the Abrams tank and . . . the Bradley fighting vehicle," and added for good measure that the "war isn't over until we've got a tank sitting on top of Saddam's bunker." In March alone, IDT [on whose Board of Directors McCaffrey sat] received more than $14 million worth of contracts relating to Abrams and Bradley machinery parts and support hardware.

Is it even possible for there to be more incriminating evidence than this?  Just compare NBC News' appallingly false email statement that "We've yet to see concrete proof of a correlation between any of his outside business interests and his statements made on our air" with the fact that McCaffrey used NBC to "criticize Rumsfeld" by gushing praise for the very tanks from which IDT greatly profits but which Rumsfeld was failing to sufficiently appreciate.  How dishonest do you have to be to deny that that constitutes a serious journalistic conflict?  And that's to say nothing of the endless support McCaffrey expressed on NBC for the War in Iraq and the greater "War on Terror" while he had all sorts of extensive ties to defense contractors that profited greatly from increased spending on both, and while he participated in the Pentagon's propaganda program.

Note, especially, that none of the responses -- from NBC, McCaffrey or his P.R. firm -- even pretend to address, let alone dispute, any of the ample facts that have been set forth in the case against NBC and McCaffrey.  Instead, NBC points to the numerous shiny medals on McCaffrey's chest in order to imply that it is simply wrong and offensive to question the propriety of such a great and credentialed man ("General McCaffrey is a retired Four Star General, a two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor . . . He is a true American hero").  That's the same "defense" on which its anchor, Brian Williams, relied when assuring us in April that he had formed a "close friendship" with McCaffrey and knew him to be a "passionate patriot," and therefore it was outrageous for anyone to dare suggest that there might be wrongdoing here.  

Can one even imagine a supposed news organization exhibiting a more unhealthy and more unquestioning reverence for a General than this?  Is that the same credential-revering, authority-worshiping mentality that drives NBC's coverage of Pentagon officials and war Generals? (yes, that's a rhetorical question, though this mini-profile of Brian Williams answers it).  Amazingly, the executive who submitted NBC's formal reply to Barstow, Allison Gollust, actually wrote this:

Our relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant [sic] of journalism.

Actually, basic tenets of journalism include investigation, skepticism and disclosure of facts -- all the things missing from NBC News' conduct.  But blindly trusting government officials and their military medals are not basic tenets of journalism, at least not in theory -- and at least not outside of establishment news outlets such as NBC News.  Is that the NBC News motto engraved on its letterhead and wall plaques:  We trust in government officials and military leaders -- a basic tenant of journalism.


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In his emails to NBC executives, McCaffrey -- undoubtedly aware that the biggest blow to his reputation would come from having NBC News finally address, in a forthright manner, its years-long reliance on such a hopelessly conflicted "analyst" -- heaps sycophantic praise on them for their defense of McCaffrey to Barstow:

Very balanced, objective response.

Underscores my view of NBC as an enterprise based on journalistics [sic] ethics --- and courage.

Proud to be associated with this team of professionals.

Describing NBC as an organization of "journalistic ethics" and "courage" here is almost as ludicrous as NBC's claim in those emails that its "viewers have been, and will continue to be, well served by [McCaffrey's] incisive and thoughtful comments."  One can scarcely imagine cowardice and unethical behavior as brazen as this.  But NBC News knows full well that few people turn to it for those attributes, and -- even after two massive, abundantly documented front-page NYT exposés -- it thus obviously lacks even the slightest interest in addressing, let alone rectifying, what it has done here.

* * * * * 

One last point:  I do hope none of this ruins my chances of succeeding Tim Russert on Meet the Press.


UPDATE:  In the Columbia Journalism Review, Charles Kaiser asks -- rhetorically:  "Is there any limit to the shamelessness of NBC News?" and then explains:

It turns out that McCaffrey is the living embodiment of all the worst aspects of entrenched Washington corruption-a man who shares with scores of other retired officers a huge financial interest in having America conduct its wars for as long as possible.

He adds:  "And yet, to this day, NBC News has never once disclosed any of McCaffrey's multiple conflicts of interest on the air - and as recently as last Thursday Williams was still using the retired general on Nightly News to opine about Afghanistan." 

Someone apparently forgot to tell the Columbia Journalism Review that Brian Williams developed a "close friendship" with McCaffrey and knows him to be a "passionate patriot" and that NBC's "relationship with General McCaffrey is based on trust, a basic tenant of journalism."  That changes everything.  


UPDATE II:  This superb comment astutely points out the numerous parallels between the behavior of NBC News here and Bush/Cheney circa 2003.


Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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