To me, the most reprehensible aspect of retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s behavior, documented in a massive front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times, wasn’t that he used his military connections on behalf of his military-contractor clients, and then didn’t disclose those connections during his paid appearances on NBC News.
That’s bad enough. But what was truly the most corrupt about McCaffrey’s behavior is that he deprived NBC’s viewers of his honest opinion at a time when it might have mattered. Worst of all: NBC executives knew it and did nothing.
The story, by David Barstow, is a follow-up to a long piece he wrote last April about conflicts of interest among paid television commentators with military background. At the time, I called it “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” Unfortunately, it pretty much disappeared without a trace.
McCaffrey, a four-star general, may be the worst — or at least the most prominent — of them all, sucking up to the military in order to serve his clients among military contractors, and going on NBC News to offer his expert opinion. Most telling is what happened when he momentarily deviated from the official line, early in the war:
Only when the invasion met unexpected resistance did General McCaffrey give a glimpse of his misgivings. “We’ve placed ourselves in a risky proposition, 400 miles into Iraq with no flank or rear area security,” he told Katie Couric on “Today.”
Mr. Rumsfeld struck back. He abruptly cut off General McCaffrey’s access to the Pentagon’s special briefings and conference calls.
General McCaffrey was stunned. “I’ve never heard his voice like that,” recalled one close associate who asked not to be identified. He added, “They showed him what life was like on the outside.”
Robert Weiner, a longtime publicist for General McCaffrey, said the general came to see that if he continued his criticism, he risked being shut out not only by Mr. Rumsfeld but also by his network of friends and contacts among the uniformed leadership.
“There is a time when you have to punt,” said Mr. Weiner, emphasizing that he spoke as General McCaffrey’s friend, not as his spokesman.
Within days General McCaffrey began to backpedal, professing his “great respect” for Mr. Rumsfeld to Tim Russert. “Is this man O.K.?” the Fox News anchor Brit Hume asked, taking note of the about-face.
For months to come, as an insurgency took root, General McCaffrey defended the Bush administration. “I am 100 percent behind what the administration, what the president of the United States, is doing in Iraq,” he told [Brian] Williams that June.
There should be firings at NBC News for the failure to disclose McCaffrey’s work for military contractors. Then again, as Beth Wellington reminds us at NewsTrust, NBC’s corporate owner, General Electric Co., is itself a major military contractor, and thus had its own conflict of interest with which to contend (or not).
The FCC is investigating, although it’s hard to imagine that it will dig as deeply as it ought to.
“On the Media” recently rebroadcast an interview it conducted last spring with one of television’s compromised analysts, Maj. Robert Bevelacqua, formerly of Fox News.