In 1971, when I worked at CBS News in Washington, the network
aired a documentary called The Selling of the Pentagon. The Museum of Broadcasting website says: "The
aim of this film, produced by Peter Davis, was to examine the increasing
utilization and cost to the taxpayers of public relations activities by the
military-industrial complex in order to shape public opinion in favor of the
military." The Congress tried to cite CBS for contempt - it was
a real drama. In his book The Place to Be, my mentor
Roger Mudd tells the whole story better than I ever could - he was the
correspondent on the award-winning program. Despite all that happened,
there was real satisfaction in knowing that the film had made a difference -
that our defense dollars would go to protect and support our soldiers, not a
military PR campaign.
Ah, but like all good news, it was short-lived. Maybe not too short - we made it to 2008 -- but the whole thing is back - and because it's about Iraq and Guantanamo this time, not just some recruiting and appropriations manipulation, it's far more malignant.
Sunday, the New York Times reported on the courtship of those military "experts" who show up on the TODAY SHOW and NIGHTLINE and CNN to tell us the facts behind our country's military initiatives.
To the public, these men are members of a familiar fraternity, presented tens of thousands of times on television and radio as “military analysts” whose long service has equipped them to give authoritative and unfettered judgments about the most pressing issues of the post-Sept. 11 world.
Hidden behind that appearance of objectivity, though, is a Pentagon information apparatus that has used those analysts in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance, an examination by The New York Times has found.
The effort, which began with the buildup to the Iraq war and continues to this day, has sought to exploit ideological and military allegiances, and also a powerful financial dynamic: Most of the analysts have ties to military contractors vested in the very war policies they are asked to assess on air.
Those business relationships are hardly ever disclosed to the viewers, and sometimes not even to the networks themselves. But collectively, the men on the plane and several dozen other military analysts represent more than 150 military contractors either as lobbyists, senior executives, board members or consultants.
Of course, this one is a little different - these
guys are consultants to the media, and while the Pentagon enables their
"expertise" and offers the heft of the tours of Guantanamo and classified briefings, their money comes from their lucrative consultancies with military vendors, not from the Pentagon directly. But think about it. If we really
were manipulated; if the arguments for the Iraq war were as flawed as we now believe, then these consultants -- follow the bread crumbs -- are at least partly responsible for the attitudes that permitted the war to take place and discouraged many of those who might have stopped it
I don't know about you, but when I hear stories about Abu Ghraib and the things that were done in our names, and think of how little I've done to instigate change, resting instead on the actions of my youth. I think about all the Germans who said the "didn't know" what was going on. I don't mean that a few soldiers, none of whose leaders has been prosecuted and who are taking the rap for things that went way beyond them -- are the equivalent of Nazi Germany. That would be stupid and facile. What I am saying is that the horrible things that emerged from this war are on all our heads - and that these guys whose testimony to us via countless talking head interviews legitimized what was going on, enabled it all.
The reason I started with The Selling of the Pentagon is that it's such a lesson. Whatever change we help to implement won't last - Abolitionist Wendell Phillips was right when he said that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." In 1971 the documentary outraged Americans who demanded change. Today we still recall the events at Abu Ghraib the same way - with a deep and painful sense of outrage. Once again, on our watch this time, bad things have been done in our names. Once again, dissemblers reign. The consequences of their betrayal, whether the story is true or not, are tragically visible. Once again -- our hearts are broken. Once again - we must share the blame for what happened there.
Once again, whatever is left of our better angels looks warily about, frightened, silenced, sad and ashamed.