‘First thing we do, kill all the consultants’

April 28, 2008

What exactly is a news “consultant?”  You see them all the time on TV news, but what are they — these “consultants” or “analysts?”

Apparently they aren’t journalists, because journalists are the ones who schmooze with them and ask them respectful on-air questions. So they’re journalistic helpmates of some sort, outsiders who provide learned insight and perspective.

But wait. Isn’t that what a “source” is supposed to be, a knowledgeable outsider whom journalists talk to and base their reporting on?

But sources don’t get money, and these consultants are on the network payroll. And what sources say is often disputed by other sources; these consultants hold forth unchallenged. Plus, with sources, the audience is usually told about any alignments or loyalties that might incline them to spin one way or the other. Not so with these expert analysts.

So they aren’t “sources” either, at least not in the usual sense.

So what are they?

What they are is a new breed of newsroom mutt. They seem to offer specialized expertise, and their regular appearances enable news organizations to brandish them as evidence of an essentially in-house richness of subject-matter authority.

But unbeknownst to the public — and without the news organizations themselves caring overly much — they may also be the furtive operatives of outside institutions with lines to peddle and policies to promote.

That’s one inescapable conclusion from The New York Times’ recent, extravagantly detailed report on the Pentagon’s extensive use of dozens of so-called “military analysts” in what the paper called “a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration’s wartime performance.”

Most of the analysts were retired generals or colonels; many were profiting directly from defense spending bloated by the Iraq war whose conduct they praised.  Off-camera were some 150 defense contractors for which these “analysts” were also working as lobbyists, executives, board members or consultants, The Times found.

The analysts were treated to frequent private briefings by senior Pentagon officials, including then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which were intended to keep them in lockstep with the official line. Some traveled to Iraq at government expense.  The fresher their inside “information” the more desirable they were on-screen, where the networks paid them $500 to $1,000 per appearance. Their effectiveness as shills was monitored and graded by a contractor employed by the Defense Department.

Some of the analysts confessed that to avoid displeasing their Pentagon patrons they choked back misgivings they had about administration claims of steady military gains. One Fox News analyst came back from a trip and told his viewers, “You can’t believe the progress.” Actually, he told the Times, “I saw immediately in 2003 that things were going south.”

The report is based on 8,000 pages of documents that the administration spent two years fighting demands to disclose. It describes a cozy arrangement involving more than 75 retired military who consulted for Fox News, NBC, CNN and other networks with round-the-clock cable operations.

Few of those operations made much effort to find out whether their analysts were benefiting from the policies they zealously defended.

It’s true, as Glenn Greenwald wrote on Salon, that “news organizations were hardly unaware that these retired generals were mindlessly reciting the administration line on the war and related matters. To the contrary, that’s precisely why our news organizations … turned to them in the first place.”

It was deplorable that the networks were frantically wrapping themselves in the flag during the early years of the war, but I’m equally concerned about the potential for longterm harm to journalistic practice that may come if the “consultant” remains installed in the news process.

By their nature, such analysts are exempt from the usual scrutiny by which reporters test the veracity and independence of information. When a consultant speaks as “CNN’s military analyst” the network itself is vouching for him. No other experts appear who might dispute his claims. He speaks with an unchallenged authority that’s unique in the process.

Journalists may need insight from ex-generals, just as they need financial analysts to explain debt and doctors to explain medicine. Let all of them speak with the authority their competence merits, and let their views and motives be subject to challenge.

Institutionalizing the news consultant is no way to enrich the news, it’s just another way to corrupt it. Consultants must go.

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