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Press Commentators and Financial Ties

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The recent New York Times‘s story on the tangled business interests of General Barry McCaffrey has resulted in heavy criticism of NBC News, where McCaffrey serves as a military analyst and in commentator. “McCaffrey may have been an honorable general, but he makes an awful journalist,” Jeff Bercovici of Portfolio wrote today. “NBC News should end its relationship with him or face the loss of its credibility.”

That’s a good idea, but it’s worth pointing out here that media outlets routinely use “experts” with McCaffrey-style economic conflicts of interests without bothering to inform their viewers and readers. As I reported here over the summer, NBC’s lead expert commentator on China during the Olympics was a man named Joshua Cooper Ramo, who was relentlessly upbeat about the games and the Chinese government. Ramo, it turned out, was the managing director and partner at the Beijing office of Kissinger Associates. That firm is headed, of course, by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who enjoys extremely close ties to the Chinese leadership and whose business involves opening doors for Western companies seeking to do business in China.

And just yesterday, the Times ran a story on the Obama administration’s likely China policy which cited Kenneth Lieberthal, identified as “a China specialist now at the Brookings Institution.” But Lieberthal, a regular commentator on China, is also a top official at Stonebridge International, a big economic consulting firms that also has big interests in China. He “advises the firm’s clients on matters related to China and Asia,” says his resume on the firm’s website. “A leading China scholar, Dr. Lieberthal has advised numerous Fortune 500 firms on their business strategies in China.” (I’ve written about Stonebridge for the magazine. Another of its top officials is Jeffrey Bader, a leading Obama advisor on China and media regular on the country.)

In defending McCaffrey and his network, NBC News president Steve Capus described the general as “a man of honor and achievement who would never let business obligations color his analysis.” That’s ridiculous. Business obligations and financial interests color everyone’s analysis, which is precisely why such facts need to be disclosed.

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