Editorial: How Network News Was Out-Psyop’d

May 4, 2008  •  Post A Comment

A keystone of good journalism is transparency. That is, telling the news consumer enough about how a story was reported to let them judge how much credence it deserves.
Recently, The New York Times pulled back the curtain on how television news networks fell down on the transparency front in their coverage of the Iraq war.
The Times reported that to drum up support for the Iraq war, the government cultivated former military men to speak on the issue as analysts. The military gave the veterans access to officials and special briefings. The catch is that many of the analysts had side businesses that benefited from the access they got, giving them a disincentive to criticize the war.
The story also documented the TV networks’ processes for vetting analysts. TV networks for the most part declined to comment in detail, saying the onus was on analysts to disclose any connections that could color their commentary.
They couldn’t be more wrong. The burden was on the networks to ask; for the most part, they did not. The most basic journalistic precepts require news outlets to question experts on whether they might have interests that lend a bias to their analysis.
So far, most of the broadcast and cable networks haven’t responded in a meaningful way. CNN, in the Times story, said it did require analysts to divulge all sources of outside income, but didn’t know that one of its military analysts had outside businesses related to the Pentagon. To CNN’s credit, the network did acknowledge it failed to ask that analyst the relevant question.
In the end, the cadre of military analysts who had a relationship with the Pentagon and gave on-air opinions helped shape the public’s opinion of the war. And the networks failed to provide their viewers with information that would have let the audience judge how much weight to give those voices.
We urge TV news divisions to stop shifting the burden of disclosure to analysts, and to accept the burden of asking commentators whether they have interests that may affect their credibility.
The first step toward improving is admitting error. It’s time for the network news divisions to ‘fess up and move forward.


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