Barstow’s N.Y. Times Investigative Series on Pentagon Hucksters Earns Polk Award

When David Barstow’s remarkable New York Times investigative pieces on corrupt propagandizing by the Pentagon first appeared,  they became required reading for my students.

And it wasn’t even the propaganda that was the mortal sin.   Our system is one in which politicians and agencies are allowed to vigorously promote their point of view while  we are obligated to vigorously monitor their output for spin and fluff and  other self-serving nonsense.  I have occasionally helped government agencies shape messages about safety and health emergencies.

But the “sins” uncovered in Bartow’s brilliant series “Message Machine” went way beyond the pale. The paid  military analysts were misrepresented by the networks  as neutral experts.  In fact, a number of them were shown to directly financially benefit from defense contractors when they promoted a certain point of view.  Sure, we are all drowning in phoniness. But this was phoniness for bucks that had life and death implications.

If you have any interest in the role of the press in society, the Barstow series is a must read.

A confession:  I am not naive about news management and spinning and lying and payoffs and all the rest.  May  God forgive me any spinning I have ever done that, well, spun more than it should have.

But this story shocked me.

Tonight David won a coveted 2008 Polk Award.

More on New York Times Investigative Piece on Military Analysts

Sometimes I think that the word “liar” is the linguistic third rail of American politics. Even in the dirtiest political campaigns, adversaries are often reluctant to call each other liars, as if avoiding that word means they have held the line and remained civil.

Thanks goodness I’m not running for office. I can say “lie” or “liar” when I want.

But – truth be told — I rarely do so. And when I do, I do it carefully. Because lying, at least as I have always understood it, is not simply making a mistake: It is intentionally telling someone something that you know not to be true. It is using a position of superior power and influence to say something untrue to hurt or deceive another person.

And, in the worst case, it is intentional deception that makes it more likely that another human being might be hurt, injured, or killed.

That is why I really have no problem saying that David Barstow’s remarkable piece in today’s New York Times, telling the story of how the Pentagon groomed some of the military analysts who have appeared on television to offer opinions about the war in Iraq, is a story about liars.

After reading Barstow’s piece, I feel on absolutely solid ground using the word. This is the story of a small group of senior military officers who, knowing one truth about the disastrous progress on the ground of the war in Iraq, intentionally went before mass audiences and – under the direction of the Pentagon — made contradictory and untrue statements, statements that they hoped would have the effect of marginalizing and silencing opponents of the war.

Even worse, these were lies that several now admit were made to protect ongoing profitable relationships with the Pentagon and defense contractors.

Angry disagreement about foreign policy is one thing.

But this was lying. And it was lying that cost lives. It is despicable.

Read it and see if you agree.


“I Felt We’d Been Hosed:” When Pentagon Propagandists Lie to Their Own Supporters

I hate the term “must read.” Who decides what the “musts” are? And whose interests are served when something must be read?

Forget all that. This is a must read.

Today’s New York Times strips away the veneer of phony objectivity of the military analysts who appear on network television.  David Barstow’s riveting story “Hidden Hand of Pentagon Helps Steer Military Analysts”   (registration required)  details the Bush Administration’s effort to curry favor with a group of network television  military analysts and keep them supplied with self-serving talking points.

And yet this isn’t the most stunning part of the story.

Administrations have always fought to have the media well supplied with a selective version of facts that are often at odds with what soldiers are seeing on the ground. Spinning and hosing is an old story.

The real stunner, and I’ll let you read it and decide, is the story’s evidence that — by not even telling the truth to the analysts ostensibly sympathetic to the administration — the adminstration left a slew of their allies feeling burned and lied to or what one senior officer called “hosed.”

It’s one thing to create propaganda that you dish up to your adversaries. This is the story of how the Pentagon tried, often unsuccessfully, to spin their own supporters in the military who served as media analysts. 

And how one ended up saying “I felt like we’d been hosed.”

A must read.  Superb reporting by David Barstow.