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May 2, 2008
Military ‘Analysts’ Are Not Journalists, And It Shows

There has been some sound and fury over The New York Times investigation of former generals used as analysts for the major cable networks. Sadly, as is so often the case, it misses the mark.

Much of it supposes that the generals were easy dupes of the Pentagon, given manipulated information that was simply issued forth during newscasts as propaganda.


Well, what was anyone to expect? These are former generals, men trained to command large groups of men in battle, not journalists.


There is good reason to point fingers at this small group of people. They were, at one time, entrusted with some of the nation’s most important national security secrets. They were, at one time, given the responsibility, should circumstances dictate, to send men to their deaths. And yet, when the nation needed them the most to question their orders, they instead chose to buy the company line.


According to The Times article, former MSNBC military analyst Kenneth Allard, who taught information warfare at the National Defense University, said, “I felt we’d been hosed.”


To the uninitiated, information warfare is precisely that . . . waging warfare through propaganda. It’s been used throughout American military history, from convincing the Germans that the Allies planned to land at the Pas de Calais instead of Normandy, right up to the first Gulf War, when airplanes dropped leaflets on Iraqi military formations warning of imminent landings by U.S. Marines. It is irony at its most basic that an information warfare instructor would have fallen prey to propaganda.


The problem, however, is that these so-called former generals lack one thing . . . they are not journalists. This is a phenomenon, it is worth pointing out, that is rearing its ugly head at a time when the public distrusts journalists.


This is an important distinction, because it strikes at how someone is trained. Journalists, even those who don’t go to journalism school, are trained to be skeptical of information. Generals have been trained throughout their career for something else, which is to win wars. Some may be equipped with a personal sense of skepticism, but this is about an individual’s strengths and not a profession.


What is troubling is that this appears to be something of a trend. Back in the early ’90s, there were studies published that suggested successful journalists would first be successful in their field because they would understand it.


There is something to that. Knowing and understanding something is critical to being able to ask intelligent questions. On the other hand, there is a price for that familiarity, which is that you don’t come to the table with the same healthy skepticism that might help do what journalism is designed to do – gore sacred cows, and ask questions no one’s thought to ask.


This is something that goes beyond generals and war. During big primary elections this year, cable news networks have opted to go for partisan talking heads rather than people who can offer insight. How else to explain Bill Bennett, whose great claim to fame has thus far been as a conservative morality scold, working as a political analyst for CNN?


What ties this all together at its core is the difference in professions. It can’t be said enough: You cannot expect honest, objective, useful analysis out of people who have been trained to do otherwise. This is true of generals describing war. Many of them can be expected to throw their lot in unquestionably with how the war is being waged, not with whether the war is warranted in the first place.


It is difficult enough to get honest, important questions from the media as it is today, without the added interference of people who cannot – by virtue of training – be expected to pursue objective truth. That is why it is important today that the quest for an informed public start with asking whether those who present information are properly equipped to do the job.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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