NBC's silence in wake of McCaffrey allegations speaks loudly
There is a growing chorus of voices in the media demanding NBC somehow address the implications of an amazing report in the New York Times Sunday, pointing out the multitude of undisclosed connections TV military analyst Gen. Barry McCaffrey has to defense contractors.
Penned by St. Petersburg Times alum David Barstow, the report documented how McCaffrey, a paid NBC News analyst, also serves as a paid consultant to defense contractors. Which puts McCaffrey is a position to appear on TV advocating policies benefiting the contractors on his client list, while also lobbying his former colleagues in government and the military.
And with no public disclosure to viewers, there is no way to know whether NBC News is aware of the competing interests, or whether they've vetted his analysis for signs of unfairness.
As Barstow wrote: "Through seven years of war an exclusive club has quietly flourished at the intersection of network news and wartime commerce. Its members, mostly retired generals, have had a foot in both camps as influential network military analysts and defense industry rainmakers. It is a deeply opaque world, a place of privileged access to senior government officials, where war commentary can fit hand in glove with undisclosed commercial interests and network executives are sometimes oblivious to possible conflicts of interest.
Few illustrate the submerged complexities of this world better than Barry McCaffrey."
Yesterday, the liberal media watch Web site Media Matters issued a letter to NBC News expressing concern over the issue, noting: "As recently as November 27, NBC aired a clip of McCaffrey saying that "Afghan security forces" are the "answer" to the stalemate in Afghanistan -- without disclosing that DynCorp International, a company on whose board McCaffrey serves, has been retained by the State Department to train the Afghanistan National Police, one of two components of the Afghanistan National Security Forces.
"You contended in a recent New York Times article that Gen. McCaffrey is not obliged to abide by NBC's formal conflict-of-interest rules because he is a consultant and not a news employee. However, failing to acknowledge his ties to the defense industry on-air jeopardizes both his credibility and the credibility of your network because full disclosure is the minimum requirement when the integrity of journalism is at stake."
The Society of Professional Journalists offered a similar take, excoriating NBC for failing to reveal McCaffrey's financial interests in the armed conflicts he was opining about, and demanding the network sever its relationship with the retired general.
Their letter reads, in part: "The SPJ Code of Ethics advises journalists “to be free of any interest other than the public’s right to know.” NBC has failed to hold itself to that standard by relying on McCaffrey in its reporting without revealing his connections. This failure is a grievous violation of one of the most basic tenets of journalism ethics. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is available at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp."
McCaffrey has denied that his ties to defense contractors has affected his work as an analyst, and his company issued a statement in his defense. Citing his repeated criticism of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the early prosecution of the war in Iraq, McCaffrey insisted he was not "shilling" for defense contractors. "Thirty-seven years of public service. Four combat tours. Wounded three times. I would hope that the country knows me as a non-partisan and objective national security expert with solid integrity."
But the defense offered by his company didn't explain the instances quoted in Barstow's report in which McCaffrey's opinions as an analyst coincided with his interests as an advocate for contractors. And though the company maintained McCaffrey is not a lobbyist, they did not explain instances in Barstow's story where McCaffrey is described attempting to influence former colleagues in the military on behalf of his clients.
The objections raised by Media Matters and SPJ are more about disclosure and transparency, arguing that viewers can't judge the worth of McCaffrey's words, if they don't know all his relevant connections. And, in fact, NBC News may not know, either; despite past words from anchor Brian Williams attesting to McCaffrey's integrity, that seems to place a lot of trust in the hands of one man.
And as NBC News goes about the business of vetting government officials and industries such as American auto manufacturers for their hypocrisies, the public is left to wonder when or if the operation will turn that high-powered lens on itself for a moment, and live up to standards of transparency it demands from so many other institutions in America.