By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Brian Williams protects his friends

That’s not an accusation. NBC News anchor Brian Williams actually comes right out and says it in response to complaints that he’s been silent about a recent New York Times article regarding retired generals and other military officers who analyze the war in Iraq for NBC and other news organizations.

To recap briefly — these officers are working as well-compensated executives for military contractors, which are, in turn, highly dependent on the good graces of the White House and the Defense Department. And Bush administration officials have not been not shy about telling the officers what to say.

Here’s a chunk of what Williams writes on his blog:

I read the article with great interest. I’ve worked with two men since I’ve had this job — both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals — Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I’m sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.

The “picking on the dead” motif is a nice touch, don’t you think? Anyway, Williams goes on to say that he’s seen no need to comment on the Times article because, in his view, the officers were “tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.”

And you know what? Perhaps they were, at least sometimes. But the thing about conflicts of interest is that viewers have a right to know what associations commentators have regardless of what comes tumbling out of their mouths. What Williams seems to be saying is that there was no need for such disclosure in these two cases because, in his personal opinion, neither man was susceptible to being spun. Is that the standard at NBC News?

In Salon, Glenn Greenwald notes that both Downing and McCaffrey were founding members of something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, headed by a slew of pro-war neocons such as Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle. According to Greenwald, this fact was never disclosed in Downing’s and McCaffrey’s numerous appearances on NBC. Here is a choice tidbit from the committee’s stated purpose:

The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq will engage in educational and advocacy efforts to mobilize domestic and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.

You can call this idealism. But it makes laughable Williams’ assertion that his “friends” were independent. To make matters worse, Greenwald also documents the two officers’ ties to the military industry, making it clear that they could have lost a lot of money both for themselves and their employers if they had gone too far in their “tough, honest” analysis.

Recently I called the Times’ revelations “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” I was wrong. The larger scandal is that folks like Brian Williams, whom I’ve always considered to be a straight shooter, have been allowed to sweep this story under the rug.

Thanks to Media Nation reader M.T.S. for calling my attention to Greenwald’s piece.

Williams photo by David Shankbone, and republished here under a GNU Free Documentation License.

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.


More on those Globe departures


Can’t get there from here


  1. Anonymous

    News, as in journalism, on commercial TV is dead. It’s a TV show.

  2. man who used to be a brian fan

    I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. One does not get to be a network news anchor without knowing how to knife a lot of people in the back and make them thank you for doing it.

  3. Peter Porcupine

    DK – I thought the thrust of the NYT article was that these retired military oficers were PENTAGON sock puppets. How does belonging to an independent advocacy/education group feed into that?Did they belong to the Kiwanis or Freemasons, too?The business about potential lost profits has blow-back, too. Are you saying enviornmentalists shouldn’t invest in firms offering greener technology, and then go out and advocate for said technology? IMHO, there’s a WHOLE lot less loupe-utilization on such arrangements as that than there is of military speaking about war.Hell, the fact that they had ever been in the military discredited them from the get-go in certain cirlces!

  4. Anonymous

    We need term limits on Washington reporters.We need to have a blacklist of all those reporters and network talking heads who dissavowed their ethics both prior to and during the war. They have been more like the fifth column than the trusted estate.Sad when you can trust the Ghost Hunters more than you can trust TV newspeople. At least with the claims of ghosts no one else dies!Perhaps the Ghost Hunters could host a real news show too, proving and disproving – like newsmen used to do.

  5. Jaska9

    Dan – if you’re not reading Glenn Greenwald’s media criticism at Salon every day, you’re going to miss the wave. The good bloggers [and if Greenwald’s not the best, he’s becoming the best] are eating the main stream media’s “journalists” for lunch and dinner. He’s doing what good reporters should be doing (like Charlie Savage is). He’s dogged, thorough, knowledgeable and like a pit bull with a juicy bone, won’t let go. He calls BS, and boy, is there a lot of BS to call in the corporate media world. I’m a typical ex-paper reader and ex-network/cable news watcher – when I found good bloggers, it was a revelation. I’m not being force fed the corporate media’s truthiness propaganda any more. If the cable and network news divisions want to survive, they need to give air time to these new faces and their memes. Bush is now officially the most unpopular president in history according to a CNN poll released today. When will it occur to the network power elites that there’s a market for the alternative to stupid right wing dreck? Hello, Glenn Beck? Is there a more ridiculous waste of CNN’s money and time than him? Vive la resistance!

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Jaska9: Thank you, Mrs. Greenwald. ;-)Yes, he is very good.

  7. Steve

    PP:What Dan and Greenwald et al. are criticizing NBC (and other broadcast outlets) for is the lack of disclosure of the retired generals’ ties to pro-war groups and the fact that they were on defense contractors’ payrolls, not the fact the retired generals were used.Note that not every retired general has supported the war or the president. But those who didn’t weren’t selected to comment on the TV.

  8. MeTheSheeple

    steve, not all the bitter former generals want to talk. See, for example, Shinseki, who was ridiculed prior to his retirement but ultimately was (unfortunately) proven right. At least per Wikipedia, in an unsourced section, he hasn’t talked about Iraq since his retirement.

  9. Steve

    sheep – Some former generals do want to talk. For instance, let’s see if Williams (or anyone else on the TV) invites Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez to speak.

  10. Anonymous

    This just one more indication that one of the best things to happen in this country in recent years is the blogosphere.Our society is founded on the idea of establishing ways of keeping people in power honest, and while the press has for 200+ years tried to fulfill this function, there has been no one to keep the press honest. (Sorry, but Ombudsmen just don’t cut it.) How could there be when they owned the megaphone?But now there is, and as the blogosphere grows in influence this will continue until I suppose we’ll need something to keep the blogosphere honest.This makes the people in the news business uneasy? Good. They should be. They’ve got a long way to go to put their house in order.Fortunately, some are starting to come around. It wasn’t all that ago that we witnessed the hilarious spectacle of the Greater Bostonians looking down their noses and sneering at blogs, but just recently, John Carroll was heard on GB praising for its REPORTING on the US attorney firings. Mirabile dictu. Perhaps I’m being naive, but it looks to me like it’s shaping up to be a whole new ball game down the road.

  11. Anonymous

    In my earlier post touting the importance of the blogosphere, I forgot someone:

  12. Steve

    There’s another point of view that’s worth considering here – Lt Col Bob Bateman’s take. Lt Col Bateman is a frequent guest of Altercation.At first skim, Bateman’s take seems to be “Ex-Generals support the Pentagon. Water is wet.” A Bateman column always deserves a serious and careful read, which I don’t have time for now, but I wanted to leave this pointer for interested readers.

  13. MeTheSheeple

    Steve — Read “Fiasco” and then decide whether you’d count Sanchez as a good authoritative source who knows what he’s talking about and isn’t trying to cover his own butt.

  14. Aaron Read

    Now what we need to see is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert publicly taking Brian Williams out to the woodshed over this one.I used to think Williams’ affable self-deprecating appearances on TDS/TCR made him one of “the good guys”. It disappoints me to think that Stewart/Colbert could be part of the problem.

  15. Neil

    Williams hosted Saturday Night Live too and was quite funny, coming off as an affable, self-deprecating sort. But he’s sure got himself on the wrong side of this issue. Maybe he’s too affable and not enough crabby journalist, unwilling to confront the awkward problem of a conflict of interest among his golf buddies. Nature of the position these days–the news anchor is an entertainer. Still, it’s funny to think that an anchor is better at hosting a comedy show than investigating the influences on the analysis his show relies on.Greenwald on the other hand has been on where he was insufferable prat. He’ll never host SNL or sit at an anchor’s desk, but he does crank out real investigative work.To Aaron’s point, if neither Stewart nor Colbert bring this up, it’s because they don’t want to make trouble for their buddy/peer in the fake infotainment business I suppose, making them no better than he is. Those guys walk a fine line. Stewart deflects questions about his influence, but we (well me at least) actually expect higher ethical standards from him and Colbert than from the networks. On the conflict of interest watch by the way–this one is more like it!

  16. Aaron Read

    Those guys walk a fine line. Stewart deflects questions about his influence, but we (well me at least) actually expect higher ethical standards from him and Colbert than from the networks.No, they don’t walk a fine line at all. Not after Stewart appeared on Crossfire and basically drove a giant stake through its heart. And not after Colbert appeared at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s dinner and verbally bitchslapped President Bush while Bush was sitting 10 feet away.No way, Stewart and Colbert are way too smart to delude themselves into thinking they don’t have an influence in the world. They know it and they love it. Granted, I do believe them when they say they wish that the world was different, and that guys like them shouldn’t have the influence they do…but they’re not naive enough to not see the real world and real influence they have.We do expect higher standards from them, and for a simple reason. Anyone can lie out their ass and make it sound funny. What makes TDS/TCR so brilliant is their ability to take the God’s-honest-truth and reveal its incredible absurdity. That is a difficult task, one that takes a great deal of effort and skill, and therefore, it is a higher standard.

  17. Neil

    Sure. Stewart and Colbert have more influence than the networks, and they know it. Remember Ted Koppel interviewing Stewart at the Dem convention in Boston. Ted was appalled at Stewart’s influence.Stewart also plays the “dancing monkey” card or “Hey, I’m just a comedian!” to great effect, as when Tucker Carlson (er, Carlson Tucker?) tried that gotcha on Crossfire about his softball questions to Kerry. Stewart said what, you’re looking to a comedy show for cues about integrity? So he gets to take potshots from both angles, making the absurdity of his own influence part of the schtick. If I have more influence than you (Tucker, Ted et. al.), what does that say about you! Good for him. As for the fine line, Stewart makes it look easy, but it can easily go wrong. Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect was a success right up until the moment he said something actually politically incorrect. After 9/11 he said that whatever the terrorists in the planes were, they weren’t “cowards”. Which I thought was a good point. But that was the end of that show. Surprise! I’m a big fan of Maher but he is kind of a prick, which doubtless contributed to the show’s demise. Back to the Williams story, cartoonist Dan Wasserman picked it up in the Sunday Globe. Not here yet, but it should be popping up shortly. I suppose if Stewart and Colbert haven’t picked up on it by now, they won’t. I guess as a story it’s not enough of a surprise to have “legs”.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén