For almost 40 years, the saying “follow the money” has been the guiding principle for those who watch over the government. But the print, broadcast, and cable television media have been neglecting this principle when covering important national security issues, according to a new report.
Last week, the public interest research organization Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) published Conflicts of Interest in the Syria Debate, a report analyzing the defense industry ties of experts who recently weighed in on whether the U.S. should take military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Lost amid the hoopla over the government shutdown, the report made some jarring discoveries: Many former government and military officials and think tank scholars who took to the airwaves and opinion pages in August and September to advocate military action had financial ties to the defense industry. Yet the media routinely presented these commentators as independent, non-biased national security experts.
According to PAI, “the threat of war with Syria may or may not have passed, but the threat that these conflicts of interest pose to our public discourse—and our democracy—is still very real.”
PAI profiled 22 commentators participating in the Syria debate between August 20 and September 18 who had ties to large defense and intelligence contractors and defense-focused investment companies and consulting firms. These commentators, most of whom supported military action against Syria, made 111 appearances as opinion columnists, quoted experts, or on-air guests in major media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post. These outlets noted their financial ties, often incompletely, in just 13 of the 111 appearances.
The report observed that commentators were typically identified by current or former positions in the government or military, not their current activities in the business world. For example, Stephen Hadley was often identified during his television appearances as George W. Bush’s national security advisor. The media failed to disclose that Hadley has served on the board of directors of Raytheon Company since 2009 and owns a large amount of Raytheon stock. Raytheon manufactures the Tomahawk cruise missile, reportedly the weapon of choice in a potential surgical strike on Syria. Hadley advocated for military action against Syria during appearances on Bloomberg TV, MSNBC, and CNN and on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post. (To its credit, the Postreported PAI’s findings, but editorial page editor Fred Hiatt insists that Hadley’s opinions were not influenced by his ties to Raytheon.) Frances Townsend, CNN’s national security analyst, also pushed for military action. CNN did not disclose that she is a senior vice president at MacAndrews & Forbes, an investment firm that owns a military vehicle manufacturer.
If the media disclosed a commentator’s affiliation with a consulting firm, PAI found that it rarely dug deeper to inform the public of the firm’s areas of specialty or clients. For instance, CNN disclosed that Jeremy Bash was former chief of staff at the Defense Department and CIA and founded a consulting firm called Beacon Global Strategies, but failed to mention that the firm specializes in foreign affairs and national defense. Defense News reported that the firm is “built on providing advice to companies, primarily defense contractors.” Bash supported military action against Syria during multiple appearances on CNN and MSNBC.
PAI also documented the defense industry ties of seven prominent Washington think tanks taking part in the Syria debate. It found the pro-military intervention views of these think tanks cited 144 times in major publications between August 7 and September 6.
As with commentators, the media often fails to disclose the financial ties of think tanks that might cause readers or viewers to question their independence. For example, Foreign Policy reported in August that the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) had issued a study touting the benefits of using Tomahawk missiles against Syria without noting that Raytheon is one of several large defense contractors that sits on ISW’s corporate council.
Five years ago, The New York Times published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the role of military analysts in promoting the George W. Bush Administration’s wartime policies. In addition to exposing the Pentagon’s involvement in arranging the media appearances of these purportedly independent experts, the Times also found that many of these analysts had undisclosed ties to defense contractors as lobbyists, executives, or consultants.
PAI’s report shows that little has changed since then. The national news media is still betraying the public trust by presenting former government and military officials and think tank scholars as unimpeachable sources when some of them have financial conflicts of interest that may be influencing their opinions.
The Project On Government Oversight sees all kinds of financial conflicts infecting the body politic. Those involving the defense industry are particularly troubling. If there is to be a healthy public debate over whether our country goes to war, we can’t let the debate be hijacked by those with a vested interest in the war.