Success: NPR pledges to disclose analysts’ conflicts of interest

Received by mail:

De: Just Foreign Policy
Date: 16/05/2008

(Just Foreign Policy.org: Home, and contact by e-mail;
NPR.org: Home, and contact on the website).

Dear Supporter of a Just Foreign Policy,

We have made important progress toward keeping Pentagon shills from being presented as neutral commentators on the public airwaves. NPR has pledged to subject their commentators to greater scrutiny and to disclose potential conflicts of interest. The NPR Ombudsman acknowledged there has been a failure to do this in the past.(1)

NPR’s action is in response to the kind of feedback that Just Foreign Policy supporters have been sending all this month. While we should continue to tell NPR that we expect them to fulfill their pledges, we should also thank them for taking this seriously.(2) We can also hold up their example to the TV news networks, which, with the exception of CNN and PBS, have completely blacked out discussion of this Pentagon program,(3) despite the fact that they cited the Pentagon’s analysts 4,500 times since 2002.(4)


NPR’s response to this issue failed to fully acknowledge past problems. They defended their use of retired general Robert Scales, even though Scales had told the Pentagon, when seeking a special trip to Iraq that would help his defense consulting business, “Recall the stuff I did after my last visit. I will do the same this time.” As the New York Times noted,(5) this statement reveals “an implicit trade of privileged access for favorable coverage.”

The Ombudsman argued that Scales did not have “any glaring business conflicts,” because he is a “defense intellectual” who “writes papers and manuals.” But, as the New York Times report indicated, the fact that Scales is knowledgeable and writes papers doesn’t address whether he had a conflict of interest, or whether NPR listeners were misled by his use as an ostensibly neutral, independent analyst. His economic success as a consultant was dependent on access to top military officials and information about current military activities, which, as the New York Times report indicated, was withdrawn from “analysts” who were critical of Bush Administration policies.

The Ombudsman quoted without comment an NPR correspondent who called the possibility of a military commentator saying things to curry favor with the Pentagon “hypothetical,” whereas the New York Times documented it was an event that had in fact occurred.

However, NPR has stepped out in front of other media outlets in taking serious steps to ensure that military analysts with business ties to the Pentagon are not presented as neutral commentators. Thanks to all of you who wrote to NPR or the New York Times.

If you are able, please consider a contribution to enable us to continue this and other work with a donation:

Thanks for all you do for a just foreign policy,

Patrick McElwee, Robert Naiman, and Chelsea Mozen, e-mail Just Foreign Policy.

References:

(1). Read the full column written by NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard, which was sent to several supporters of Just Foreign Policy, “NPR, New York Times and Sourcing Military Experts”. Also, you can see the NPR News Department’s updated policy statement on vetting commentators, released to the public by the Ombudsman, and which NPR officials have said would be updated again;

(2). If you want to send a follow-up letter to the Ombudsman, asking her to monitor faithfulness to the new standards, you can write her (NPR.org/contact);

(3). “TV News Blackout on Pentagon Pundits,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting FAIR, May 5, 2008;

(4). “Military analysts named in Times exposé appeared or were quoted more than 4,500 times on broadcast nets, cables, NPR,” Media Matters, May 13, 2008;

(5). “Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” David Barstow, New York Times, April 20, 2008.

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