I was on NPR’s Talk of the Nation yesterday to discuss the recent New York Times story about the Pentagon’s use of retired military officials “to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.” The Times reported that internal Pentagon documents routinely referred to its “military analysts as ‘message force multipliers’ or ‘surrogates’ who could be counted on to deliver administration ‘themes and messages’ to millions of Americans ‘in the form of their own opinions’.”
Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard was also on the show. His view was that the Times’ story was a big “nothing burger” and that it’s no surprise that–as he has written on the Standard’s website—the Pentagon “provides special access to retired generals” and that “many retired generals have business interests in the defense industry.” He also suggested that the only reason that magazines like Harper’s and people like me were upset by the Times story was that we were against the war (which means, I guess, that we were rooting against America and the troops).
A few comments: First, the Pentagon wasn’t giving access to just any retired generals, but picked those it believed would be especially eager to parrot its talking points. Take John C. Garrett, a retired Marine colonel and unpaid analyst for Fox News, who wrote in one email to his Pentagon handlers, “Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay.” (This was prior to a January 2007 TV appearance by Garrett in which he talked about the surge strategy in Iraq.)
Second, it is a fair characterization to say that Harper’s, institutionally, was extremely dubious about the claims made by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war, and beyond. I’d also note that skepticism about the government’s official line–any government’s official line–should be the default position of any respectable news organization. In the case of the Bush administration and the Iraq War, it’s entirely clear that a skeptical posture was the proper one.
The Weekly Standard, on the other hand, displayed no independence at all and functioned more or less as a Bush administration mouthpiece (which is no surprise since its editorial staff and regular writers included some of the most enthusiastic advocates and architects of the Iraq War). Indeed, in the case of the Standard, the Pentagon would have had no need to plant the views of its handpicked defense analysts in the magazine’s pages. Bush administration officials simply told the Standard’s writers what to write and they were happy to serve as stenographers. Which may explain why Goldfarb is so untroubled by the Times’ story.