The Penta-Pundits

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Well, why shouldn’t the Pentagon put its four-stars on the tube to ladle out patriotic talking points to the American public like mess hall stew?

There’s a straightforward quasi-honesty to government-managed news, which only has a weird feel because the Penta-pundits had to pose as impartial analysts and play along with the image the networks wanted to project: seriousness, independence, etc. How demeaning that their meetings with the Secretary of Defense had to be secret — an embarrassment awaiting ultimate exposure by the New York Times.

Let us consider the awkwardly evolving nature of war. Even as its psychological support diminishes among a public grown skeptical of any enterprise that requires ultimate sacrifice and absolute faith — and influenced, at least at the margins of its consciousness, by a permanent and growing pro-peace movement — it is more necessary than ever, as the engine that drives such a large part of the economy and makes so many people rich. The war machine can’t simply be dismantled. War must remain “inevitable.”

However, when our leaders want to stage one of these inevitable productions, they can’t just garner public support for it the old-fashioned way, with Nuremberg-style rallies to stoke up the enthusiasm. Nor can they blithely layer their calls for strident, up-tempo patriotism or their dire warnings of enemy malice atop the business of daily life like so much propaganda wallpaper, and expect to be taken seriously.

Rather, as the New York Times account last month by David Barstow, on the “infiltration” of network news by paid military propagandists, made clear, they are reduced to acting like common conspirators, attempting to project authority and credibility — “information dominance” — through private media outlets. They must rally the support they need more by stealth than by command. How humiliating.

For instance, Barstow writes in his April 20 investigative piece (“Message Machine: Behind TV Analysts, Pentagon’s Hidden Hand”): “Again and again, records show, the administration has enlisted analysts as a rapid reaction force to rebut what it viewed as critical news coverage, some of it by the networks’ own Pentagon correspondents. For example, when news articles revealed that troops in Iraq were dying because of inadequate body armor, a senior Pentagon official wrote to his colleagues: ‘I think our analysts — properly armed’ (with talking points, that is, of which there is no shortage) ‘— can push back in that arena.’”

My point in bringing this up now, several weeks after the shock value of the piece has worn off, is to ponder what I would consider the ultimate question it raises, which is about the role of the media in our lives and in the perpetuation of wars the public really doesn’t want.

Let’s not kid ourselves. The four-star shills on the tube, most of whom, as the Times piece pointed out, represented companies that figured to profit from the war, are not the major problem.

Their carte blanche appearance as “analysts” on the networks, which didn’t for the most part trouble themselves to look into possible conflicts of interest, are no more than a symptom of a far larger conflict of interest, which inculpates the entire corporate, a.k.a. mainstream, media: They are part of the war economy — the military-industrial-media complex — and serve their own interests far better as cooperative members of the team, not skeptical obstructionists who seriously challenge the government’s case for war or give airplay or newspaper space to those who do.

Before there was a quagmire there was a drumbeat, remember? The buildup to the invasion of Iraq was reported with such bias and inaccuracy that both the Times and the Washington Post, in the summer of 2004, more than a year after the devastating shock-and-awe bombing campaign — well after it was too late to alter history — published page-one analyses of what, if anything, they had done wrong.

In the Post story, Watergate icon Bob Woodward said that the newsroom atmosphere at his paper in early 2003 was so gung-ho for the invasion, or at least so seduced by the fear factor, that “it was risky for journalists to write anything that might look silly” — by which he meant skeptical — “if weapons were ultimately found in Iraq.” He agonized: “I think I was part of the groupthink.”

And that, of course, is as far as it went. Neither these papers nor the mainstream media as a whole have confronted their vulnerability to groupthink when the war drums sound, which is when they actually need impartiality, skepticism and courage.

They have, instead, worked hard to resurrect the illusion of their independence from the rest of the war economy — not, ironically, to prevent the next fool’s war from being launched, but to provide a launching pad for the zealots and militarists who will need, once again, to lie to the public from a credible and respected forum.