Why Pentagon talking heads piece in New York Times had no legs

Share via

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

It was the kind of juicy investigative piece that journalists like to call a ‘holy [expletive]’ story. But the public reaction has seemed more along the lines of, ‘Yeah’

Sunday’s New York Times led with a 7,600-word story by reporter David Barstow that revealed how the Pentagon wrangled a posse of retired senior military commanders-turned-TV talking heads ‘in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage’ of Bush administration war policy.


Well-sourced and carefully constructed, dealing with a topic of pressing national interest, the story looked destined to dominate the national conversation, the same way viewer outrage over ABC’s Democratic debate did last week.

Instead the Pentagon story made minimal ripples. Why would that be?

Few stories can thrive these days without TV exposure, and there the Times’ scoop was handicapped from the start.

The Sunday-morning talk shows ignored the piece. No surprise that, perhaps, as the story suggested that news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC had broadcast the analysts’ talking points about the Iraq war and other military matters without asking too many questions about the provenance of their information.

Oddly, though, the Pentagon caper likewise seemed a nonstarter on the blogosphere, which is famed for blowing up minor PR brush fires into massive conflagrations. The left-leaning Huffington Post, for instance, offered a link to the New York Times piece but mostly let slide the opportunity to pound away at another perceived Bush lapse.

By Monday morning, the Pentagon TV story was still mostly missing from network radar screens. NBC’s Brian Williams, who’s been known to take a rooting interest in media-industry shopkeeping, didn’t even mention it on his ‘Daily Nightly’ blog. ‘The talk of the staff meetings today was the Pope’s surprising visit (a huge media tour de force, by most reviews here in New York and elsewhere), and tomorrow’s vote in Pennsylvania,’ Williams wrote.

That pointed up a second problem with the Times story: Bad timing. Whatever the exigencies of newspaper deadlines, it was hard to showcase a major investigation on a weekend dominated by a hotly contested primary and the pope’s visit to America. Beset by breaking news, the networks had relatively limited shelf space for an enterprise story they obviously weren’t thrilled about to begin with.


But the biggest hurdle for the story’s impact may have been one journalists have trouble seeing. Many Americans confronted with stories of media manipulation by government officials aren’t, at this point, shocked and awed. Instead they’ve come to expect it. Increasingly, they consider the media simply a mouthpiece for whoever has the most power. You don’t have to tell John Q. Public that the fix is in; he takes it for granted.

If that sounds cynical, consider what Americans have learned about PR techniques coming out of the Pentagon and the White House, which have sought to erase the distinction between journalism and the government. The Defense Department sponsored an ‘embed’ program that matched war correspondents with military units. Former escort Jeff Gannon attended White House press conferences under the auspices of a newsgathering organization that was nothing more than a front for a political advocacy group. Columnist Armstrong Williams was paid to write pro-administration propaganda.

So, many Americans, confronted with evidence that TV’s talking heads are taking orders not just from government officials but also military-contractor clients, can be excused for not being all that surprised. That is the price we pay for having a government that’s not afraid to use sophisticated -- and often brazenly misleading -- PR tactics.

By Monday night, the Pentagon story had already slipped to No. 4 on the Times website’s ‘most popular’ index. The top story? ‘Cat Lovers Appreciate Soul Mate in Vatican.’

-- Scott Collins