Journalistic Ethics: The Pentagon Story

I’ve just re-read the NYT scathing expose of the massive PR machine that is the Bush/Rumsfeld Pentagon, and I’m struck (yet again) at how far removed today’s TV news organizations seem to be from what I believe to be core journalistic ethics: transparency and the absolute avoidance of the appearance of conflict of interest.

I don’t know what’s more amazing: how little oversight the network handlers employed or what appears to be rampant greed (access to power for self or employer) on the part of former military colonels and generals (the only ranks identified). For example, the network news organizations “raised no objections when the Defense Department began paying their commercial airfare for Pentagon-sponsored trips to Iraq — a clear ethical violation for most news organizations.”

The story will (properly) be used to counter those who insist that citizen journalists or people who use blogging software as their publishing platform are somehow innately inferior to credentialed journalists/news organizations. Read the damning responses from the networks to the 10,000 word expose:

CBS News declined to comment on what it knew about its military analysts’ business affiliations or what steps it took to guard against potential conflicts.

NBC News also declined to discuss its procedures for hiring and monitoring military analysts. The network issued a short statement: “We have clear policies in place to assure that the people who appear on our air have been appropriately vetted and that nothing in their profile would lead to even a perception of a conflict of interest.”

Jeffrey W. Schneider, a spokesman for ABC, said that while the network’s military consultants were not held to the same ethical rules as its full-time journalists, they were expected to keep the network informed about any outside business entanglements. “We make it clear to them we expect them to keep us closely apprised,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Fox News said executives “refused to participate” in this article.

CNN requires its military analysts to disclose in writing all outside sources of income. But like the other networks, it does not provide its military analysts with the kind of written, specific ethical guidelines it gives its full-time employees for avoiding real or apparent conflicts of interest.

Yet even where controls exist, they have sometimes proven porous.

CNN, for example, said it was unaware for nearly three years that one of its main military analysts, General Marks, was deeply involved in the business of seeking government contracts, including contracts related to Iraq.

How could the NYT have enhanced the online version of the story? A list of the generals and colonels with all of their affiliations (network, business) would have been helpful. A timeline, perhaps. A network diagram showing how they are related to one another — and Administration officials — might be interesting. Anything else?

Also see: Pentagon Propaganda May Have Been Illegal

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