Rarely in the United States does the march toward war end with everyone involved defusing the issue diplomatically. But after a refusal of international and domestic support for the Obama administration’s plan to militarily intervene against the Syrian government for the alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, the possibility of a standoff with Russia, and the agreement by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate its chemical weapons, the U.S. has found itself in the rare position of talking — and not fighting — to reach diplomatic ends. Despite this, recent evidence suggests that the media commentators that called for intervention the loudest may have been influenced by goals other than the national interest.
According to a recently published report by the Public Accountability Initiative, 22 media commentators and seven think tanks — all of whom directly helped drive the public and policy debates on intervening in Syria — failed to disclose their connections with defense and foreign policy firms that bear a vested interest in American involvement in Syria. This presents a problem, as typically these experts were used to give weight to certain media outlets’ pundits — particularly through justifying a prolonged military involvement and verifying arguments that otherwise would be dismissed as biased or unfounded.
Stephen Hadley, a national security advisor to former president George W. Bush, argued intensively for military intervention in a host of appearances on CNN, MSNBC, FOX News and Bloomberg TV. In a Washington Post op-ed he authored, he stated:
“The Arab Awakening has caused a crisis in the Middle East that will take years to sort out. There is one Middle East crisis, however, that must be resolved in months, not years. Every American committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon should urge Congress to grant President Obama authority to use military force against the Assad regime in Syria.”
However, at no time during his public appearances did Hadley disclose that he was a director at Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Tomahawk cruise missile system cited as the weapon of choice for the potential strike against Syria. Hadley is the chair of Raytheon’s public affairs committee, with 11,477 shares of Raytheon stock in his possession — shares whose cost spiked during the Syria debate. Hadley earns $128,500 annually in cash compensation from the company.
For some, the conflicts of interest were clear-cut — such as officer and board positions or shares in defense contracting companies. For others — who may have ties to private investment firms and consulting firms with client lists that are not automatically disclosed — the conflicts of interest may be difficult to spot or disguised.
“We found lots of industry ties. Some of them are stronger than others. Some really rise to the level of clear conflicts of interest,” said Kevin Connor, PAI’s director and a co-author of the report. “These networks and these commentators should err on the side of disclosure.”
Of the 111 appearances made by the conflicted commentators — as listed in the report — in the Syrian debate on the major media outlets, only 13 appearances noted the experts’ professional and/or financial stakes in Syria. While most of the commentators supported aggressive action in Syria, it would be inaccurate to say that all of those with potential conflicts of interest were actually lobbying for outside interests. For instance, Robert Scales — who served as FOX News military analyst and who has links to Colgen, a defense and media consulting firm that has open Defense Department contracts – spoke out against military intervention against Syria.
Among the most strongly conflicted cases cited in the report was that of Jack Keane — who, in his appearances on PBS Newshour, BBC Radio 4, Utah Public Radio and FOX News was cited as the vice chief of staff of the Army from 1999 to 2003 and board chairman for the Institute for the Study of War. He was described as “an influential advocate for the surge of troops in Iraq” and “serving in an advisory role in the U.S. occupation of Iraq.”
Undisclosed was the fact that Keane has served as a director for General Dynamics — the fourth largest federal contractor and military services company in the world, as of 2011 — since shortly after his retirement from the Army. Keane is also a venture partner with SCP Partners, a defense and security investment private equity firm.
Anthony Zinni was identified as a retired U.S. Marine Corps General, the former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command and a Distinguished Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in his multiple appearances with CNN and the Washington Post. Zinni is also an outside director at BAE Systems — the third-largest military service company in the world in 2011 — and the former chairman of the board and the former acting chief executive of the company. He is also a member of the advisory board of DC Capital Partners, which according to its website advertises that “DC Capital’s investment strategy emphasizes certain sectors that it believes offer the most compelling growth opportunities for investment, including but not limited to: Intelligence, Homeland Security, Information Technology, and Operations and Maintenance.”
Zinni, like most of the other commentators with conflicts of interest, supported the strike, but questioned the thinking that this encounter can be “one-and-done” — a short military involvement from which the United States can quickly withdraw. As he said on CBS’s “This Morning”,
“Well, we have to do something because the President laid a red line down. This is an unacceptable act. And– and so I think we’re committed, or look, we can– he’ll continue to test us. I think we need to think in terms of a longer campaign, not that this shot might be just one act and then finished.”
Frances Townsend, as CNN’s national security advisor, pressed for a “full comprehensive strategy” on Syria without congressional limits. Cited as a member of the CIA and DHS advisory committees, Townsend is also a senior vice president at MacAndrews & Forbes, which owns AM General, a military vehicles manufacturer. Townsend is also an advisor for Monument Capital Group, a global security and defense sector investment firm, and Decision Sciences, a cargo screening company contracted to the Defense Department.
Townsend also served until 2012 as chair of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a private intelligence contractor association. On multiple occasions on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” she expressed her worries that a limited strike would undermine national security.
On Aug. 28, 2013, regarding comments that a standoff strike would not be effective toward soliciting permanent change in Syria, Townsend said:
“When we have used these standoff assaults before, like after the East Africa bombing, it has a short-term effect, but not a long-term strategic effect. And that’s what you really want to do. You don’t want to just deter the Syrians. You want to deter Hezbollah, al Qaeda, Iran from using these kind of weapons as well.”
And on Sept. 3, 2013, regarding David Kay’s comments that, logistically, it would be difficult to secure Syrian chemical weapons, she said:
“That’s right, so you worry about the release of what chemical weapons they have, the use of Hezbollah, you know, asymmetric attacks not only inside Syria but are in the region and around the world against Western targets.”
She also vouched for the administration’s intelligence on Syria and publicly questioned the strength of Russia’s plan toward dealing with Syria’s chemicals weapons.
Privately invested public-interest groups
The report also profiles conflicts of interest with the Brookings Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Institute for the Study of War, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Enterprise Institute, the Atlantic Council and the Center for American Progress.
“Experts with The Brookings Institution were cited in 31 articles on Syria in our dataset, more than any other think tank. Brookings is an influential think tank that is presented in the media as an independent authority, yet it receives millions in funding from the defense industry, including $1 – 2.5 million from Booz Allen Hamilton and $50,000 – $100,000 from Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Palantir Technologies. Brookings Executive Education’s Advisory Council Chair, Ronald Sanders, is a Vice President and Senior Fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton.
“The Center for Strategic and International Studies was cited in 30 articles on Syria. CSIS has ample individual connections to the defense industry through its advisors and trustees, including CSIS Senior Advisor Margaret Sidney Ashworth, Corporate Vice President for Government Relations at Northrop Grumman, and CSIS Advisor Thomas Culligan, Senior Vice President at Raytheon. CSIS President and CEO John Hamre is a director for defense contractor SAIC.
“Analysts representing The Institute for the Study of War were cited in 22 articles on Syria in our dataset. One such article by former ISW Senior Research Analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy was cited by Secretary John Kerry and Senator John McCain during congressional hearings in their effort to justify intervention. ISW’s Corporate Council represents a who’s who of the defense industry and includes Raytheon, SAIC, Palantir, General Dynamics, CACI, Northrop Grumman,DynCorp, and L-3 Communication.”
Honesty in reporting
While having a potential conflict of interest does not necessarily disqualify a person from engaging or acting in a public role, hiding or failing to disclose the conflict constitutes journalistic dishonesty and invites allegations of unduly trying to control policy or public discussion for private gains.
This is not a view shared by everyone in the media world. Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for the Washington Post, felt that Hadley’s opinions could not fairly be said to be colored by his association with Raytheon. “More disclosure is generally better than less, but I’m confident that Hadley’s opinion piece, which was consistent with the worldview he has espoused for many years, was not influenced by any hypothetical, certainly marginal, impact to Raytheon’s bottom line,” Hiatt said in a statement.
Michael Clemente, executive vice president of news at FOX News, said in a statement, “We generally disclose contacts when our judgment is that it’s journalistically germane to the story.”
PAI argues that this lack of disclosure represents a greater threat to journalistic integrity than just journalistic dishonesty, however:
“The report offers a new look at an issue raised by David Barstow’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series on the role military analysts played in promoting the Bush Administration’s narrative on Iraq. In addition to exposing coordination with the Pentagon, Barstow found that many cable news analysts had industry ties that were not disclosed on air.
“If the recent debate around Syria is any guide, media outlets have done very little to address the gaps in disclosure and abuses of the public trust that Barstow exposed. Some analysts have stayed the same, others are new, and the issues and range of opinion are different. But the media continues to present former military and government officials as venerated experts without informing the public of their industry ties – the personal financial interests that may be shaping their opinions of what is in the national interest.”
A history of questionable punditry
This follows a set pattern of punditry defended by “subject matter experts” that have defended American military intervention over the last two decades. Without weighing the perspective from which these experts may be interpreting and presenting their recommendations, there is no distinct way to measure bias. Worse, bias can be construed as fact in such a situation.
For example, the push toward selling the Iraq War left many media outlets using punditry and biased opinions to help defend the Bush administration’s call for intervention. As argued by former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan:
“Through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers. Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it … the media would neglect their watchdog role, focusing less on truth and accuracy and more on whether the campaign was succeeding. Was the president winning or losing the argument? How were Democrats responding? What were the electoral implications? What did the polls say? And the truth — about the actual nature of the threat posed by Saddam, the right way to confront it, and the possible risks of military conflict — would get largely left behind.”
Ultimately, what this report questions is whether the media can be trusted to tell the news without bias. According to the report, FOX News and Bloomberg TV have never attempted to disclose the industry ties of the commentators, while NBC (MSNBC/CNBC/NBC Nightly News) attempted five times out of 16 reports and CNN attempted seven times out of 37 reports.
If the media is being used to discuss and weigh policy, at the very least the public should expect the media to be an impartial judge.
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