Commentary Magazine


Stop the Presses!

Hold the front page! Heck, on second thought, hold three full inside pages as well. Notify the Pulitzer jurors. The New York Times has a blockbuster scoop. Its ace reporter, David Barstow, has uncovered shocking evidence that . . . the Pentagon tries to get out its side of the story about Iraq to the news media.

Are you surprised? Outraged? Furious? Apparently the Times is: it’s found  a new wrinkle in what it views as an insidious military propaganda campaign. You see, the Defense Department isn’t content to try to present its views simply to full-time reporters who are paid employees of organizations like the New York Times. It actually has the temerity to brief retired military officers directly, who then opine on TV and in print about matters such as the Iraq War.

As I read and read and read this seemingly endless report, I kept trying to figure out what the news was here. Why did the Times decide this story is so important? After all, it’s no secret that the Pentagon–and every other branch of government–routinely provides background briefings to journalists (including columnists and other purveyors of opinion), and tries to influence their coverage by carefully doling out access. It is
hardly unheard of for cabinet members–or even the President and Vice President–to woo selected journalists deemed to be friendly while cutting off those deemed hostile. Nor is it exactly a scandal for government agencies to hire public relations firms to track coverage of them and try to suggest ways in which they might be cast in a more positive light. All this is part and parcel of the daily grind of Washington journalism in which the Times is, of course, a leading participant.

I think I got to the nub of the problem when I read, buried deep in this article, Barstow’s complaint that the Pentagon’s campaign to brief military analysts “recalled other administration tactics that subverted traditional journalism.” But the Times would laugh at anyone who claimed that activities “subversive” of America’s national interest are at all problematic. After all, aren’t we constantly told that criticism–even “subversive” criticism–is the highest form of patriotism? Apparently it’s one thing to subvert one’s country and another thing to subvert the MSM. We can’t have that!

How dare the Pentagon try to break the media monopoly traditionally held by full-time journalists of reliably “progressive” views! The gall of those guys to try to shape public opinion through the words of retired officers who might have a different perspective! Who might even be, as the article darkly warns, “in sync with the administration’s neo-conservative brain trust.”

The implicit purpose of the Times‘s article is obvious: to elevate this perfectly normal practice into a scandal in the hopes of quashing it. Thus leaving the Times and its fellow MSM organs–conveniently enough–as the dominant shapers of public opinion.